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OPINION: Shelters are critical but other supports are needed too


In response to the "commentary" printed January 25th regarding the lack of shelters in Alberta. We believe the message was an important one but may have missed something fundamental to the discussion.

Shelters are one type of service required within a continuum of care and support for adults, children and families facing domestic violence and abuse. They provide crisis services to families fleeing a dangerous situation, offering a maximum stay of 21 days (per Alberta funding guidelines).

Shelters are critical – they are like the emergency rooms of our hospitals. They've saved many lives and continue to do so. That's why we're so pleased that Jessie's House (the shelter being built by the Jessica Martel Memorial Foundation) is opening this spring to serve our communities.

At the same time, the vast majority of people will never go to a shelter. Not because they don't face violence and abuse in their homes every day, but because they don't see a shelter as a viable option.

A woman fleeing her intimate partner and staying at a shelter in Alberta, continues the cycle of leaving/returning an average of 9 to 11 times. When she leaves is when she is at the greatest risk of being killed or significantly injured. Jessica Martel was killed the day she was leaving. So a woman who finally leaves for good, has likely risked death 9 to 11 times.

Why do women keep going back? Because 21 days is not enough time to deal with the trauma, put the pieces of her life back together, deal with the court system, and/or release finances that are often controlled by an abusive partner. When a woman has nowhere to go, no resources and no recourse from the courts that can be completed before she has to leave the shelter, what choice does she have?

And it's not just women. With few options for any Albertan being abused, they end up staying with their abuser(s). They may feel obligated to stay for their children; or their partner needs help (common with seniors); or they can't see a way out. If you live with it long enough, it's amazing what a human being can endure.

What's available for the ones who will never utilize a shelter? Or those perpetrating the abuse? How can they get support to cope, to heal, to build skills that will allow them develop a safe exit strategy? How do we work with abusers to understand their toxic behaviour and regulate their anger and frustration? How do we prevent abusive relationships going forward? How do we teach and model healthy relationships for our children and youth?

This is where the Stop Abuse in Families (SAIF) Society comes in; as a 2nd stage trauma organization, we provide support services to all those who choose not to access a shelter or who may not be able to access a shelter.

Alberta has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in Canada, with 1 in 3 Albertans estimated to have experienced abuse. Last year, we supported almost 500 families; provided over 3,000 counselling hours; and worked with hundreds of individuals. We don't require our clients leave their homes. We just require them to pick up a phone and call us. And we do it for a budget of under half a million dollars.

We're fortunate that the City of St Albert has consistently funded 20 to 25 per cent of our operating budget. Provincial grants and other municipalities contribute another 25 per cent. The other 50 per cent is made up of donations from local residents, charitable partners, service clubs and local businesses.

When our funding gets cut, like our recent provincial grant for our Elder Abuse program, it means we can't provide services to seniors being abused, financially defrauded, and having critical medical care withheld. When the province cuts the fund that supports our New Directions program for moms and their children, families lose out on trauma informed care. When donations drop, we cut programming and our wait list grows.

We understand the current fiscal realities of our province and the belt tightening that every Albertan is feeling. We just want to explain that it's not shelters OR agencies like SAIF. It's about embracing the power of and. When it comes to domestic violence and abuse, at SAIF, we're trying to prevent anyone from ever needing a shelter. That doesn't mean we don't need those shelters. But for the vast majority that will never flee, they need somewhere too.

Areni Kelleppan, executive director, Stop Abuse in Families (SAIF) Society, St. Albert

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