In early March 2024, Meghan Tibbits-Lamirande wrote about the feminist occupation of Nellie’s Hostel. Her work documented the early activism that happened at Nellie’s in 1976, when staff and residents organized to resist funding and service cutbacks. Their action sought to address turnaways of women due to lack of space or finances; women having to leave shelter because they had reached maximum stay lengths; the need for the creation of more housing for women; overcrowding in shelters, leading to women returning to violence or becoming homeless; and the need for funding to cover shelter operations.

While this list was written in 1976, it could have been written in 2024. We continue to advocate for more shelter spaces, adequate funding for operations, and the development of more affordable housing. How can it be that after 50 years, shelters and transition houses are facing the same challenges and women fleeing violence still fighting to survive?

I do not want to discount the strides that have been made. Since the 1970s, women experiencing violence have gained many rights. Violence is not only better understood today, but domestic violence is no longer viewed as a completely private issue. VAW shelters and transition houses, alongside gender justice organizations, have brought mainstream attention to these issues and contributed to many legal and policy reforms.

Despite the gains made, we have seen turnaway rates increasing, particularly with increasing violence through the pandemic. In a single year in Alberta, over 11,000 requests for shelter space were unable to be accommodated due to capacity constraints.  Women are also staying longer in shelter, as the housing crisis has made finding affordable housing incredibly difficult. Survivors and shelter workers both fear that without affordable housing options for women, women may return to abusers or become homeless.

The situation for staff has also seen little change in the last 50 years. Tibbits-Lamirande noted low salaries, high workloads, overtime, and understaffing as challenges facing workers in 1976. Our recently released Feminist Brain Drain study found many of the same issues continuing to plague workers and organizations today. Our survey found that 66% of non-management respondents reported earning less than $50,000/year in 2022.

VAW shelters and transition houses across Canada have been doing incredible work for more than 50 years. Imagine what we could achieve if we were not fighting every day for funding to cover basic operations and salaries. If governments want to be serious about addressing gender-based violence, they need to stabilize the anti-violence sector so that we can continue to do this life-saving work.

I hope we are not looking back in another 50 years and wondering why so little has changed.

Robyn Hoogendam is WSC’s Research and Policy Manager