Fleeing Abuse

Toward homes without violence for women with mental illness and addictions

Dianna Hurford

Web-only article from "Housing and Homelessness" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (1)

More than 15,500 women in BC received emergency shelter and support when they left an abusive relationship in 2003/2004.1 Recent research found that only 16% of women leaving an abusive relationship accessed transition houses or emergency shelters.2

And throughout BC, transition houses, emergency shelters and non-profit housing providers are noticing a significant trend: a rising number of women with mental health and/or addiction issues are at risk of homelessness.

Women with mental health and addiction issues are highly vulnerability to homelessness for several reasons:

  • inability to meet drug- and alcohol-free eligibility requirements for transition houses and non-profit housing

  • centralization of detox centres primarily in urban areas

  • low vacancy rates in the affordable private rental housing stock

  • long wait-lists for non-market housing (the applicant wait-list for social and non-profit housing in BC surpassed 13,000 households in 2005)3

'No room at the inn'

The BC Non-Profit Housing Association (BCNPHA), in partnership with the BC/Yukon Society for Transition Houses, recently studied how non-profit housing providers and transition houses can work together to make affordable housing for women more accessible.4 More access to housing would reduce the number of women who return to violent relationships or turn to the streets.

The study began by looking at barriers that make housing and support more difficult for specific groups, including women with mental illness and addiction.

 

Understanding the barriers for women with mental illness fleeing domestic violence is complex. For example, women may struggle with mental health and addiction issues prior to the abuse - these issues may have put them at higher risk of relationship violence. But abuse can also be traumatizing, which can trigger symptoms of mental illness ranging from anxiety and low self-esteem to severe depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and self-harm. The high number of Aboriginal women in violent relationships and in the sex trade in BC has been largely linked to generations of abuse and its after-effects, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).5

Symptoms of mental illness may lead to substance abuse to self-medicate against emotional suffering. Abused women may be introduced to alcohol and other drugs by the abusers, who use these substances to control the women. Women experiencing symptoms of a disorder like PTSD—such as flashbacks, numbed emotions, depression, insomnia and constant alertness - tend to be vulnerable to substance use problems.

Mental illness such as depression, schizophrenia or PTSD—whether caused by abuse or not - can really limit a person's ability to access housing and support services. These illnesses can affect motivation, self-confidence, concentration and the ability to access and understand information such as getting and filling out housing applications.

Mental illness itself acts as a barrier to getting housing. Many public housing programs don't allow women with behaviour issues to use their services. Women are denied service for several reasons:

 

  • not having enough staff to support the special needs of the woman

  • not having an appropriate building or space to protect women with mental illness and/or addictions while at the same time protecting existing tenants/clients

  • not having enough staff or community support with expertise in domestic violence, mental illness and addiction

There is a shortage of housing and service programs that do serve these women.

Longer-term specialized supports are essential

Since the majority of women facing mental health and/or addiction problems are ineligible for existing housing supports, specialized services and supports are needed to help these women to find and keep safe, permanent, affordable housing. When women don't have the means to effectively deal with mental health and addiction symptoms, the cycle of violence is likely to repeat in their lives.

Community responses will be much enhanced if longer-term solutions for supporting women with mental health and addiction issues are put into place. Women with mental health and addictions fleeing domestic violence need to heal physically and emotionally. Supports such as ongoing counselling and emotional support, medical and nutritional services, detox, and help with finding affordable housing, applying for income assistance and job search are greatly needed. These types of supports will begin to fill a service gap and help these women move from 'survival' mode to safer, longer-term planning for a violence-free future.

 
About the author
Dianna is Research Coordinator for the BC Non-Profit Housing Association.
Footnotes:
  1. Taylor-Butts, A. (2004). Canada's shelters for abused women, 2003/04. Juristat, (25)3. http://dsp-psd.pwgsc.gc.ca/Collection-R/Statcan/85-002-XIE/0030585-002-XIE.pdf

  2. Ford-Gilboe, M., Wuest, J., Varcoe, C. et al. (2006). The effects of personal, social and economic resources on physical and mental health of women in the early years after leaving an abusive. Ottawa: Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), Institute of Gender and Health.

  3. BC Housing. (2005). Housing Services 1st quarter activity report (April, May, June, 2005). Burnaby: Author.

  4. BC Non-Profit Housing Association. (2007). Examination of the housing and support continuum for women fleeing abuse: A framework for further research. Vancouver: Author.

  5. Farley, M., Lynne, J. & Cotton, A. (2005). Prostitution in Vancouver: Violence and the colonization of First Nations women. Transcultural Psychiatry, 42(2), 242-271.

  6. Canadian Mental Health Association for the Kootenays. (2006). Women's services - Kootenay Haven Transition House - Outcomes report, April 1st 2005 - March 31st 2006. Cranbrook: Author.

  7. Jim Woodward and Associates Inc., Eberle Planning and Research, Deborah Kraus Consulting et al. (2006). From shelter to home...Greater Vancouver Shelter Strategy 2006-2015. Greater Vancouver Regional District: Shelter Planning Group. www.gvrd.bc.ca/homelessness/pdfs/Shelter_Planning_Report-May2006.pdf

 

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