It has been said that the strongest writing comes from people who write about what they know.
A recently released book, with essays written by experienced shelter managers from across the country, addresses the future of the homeless shelter in Canada.
According to promotional material, the book’s contributors have years of experience understanding the causes of and solutions to homelessness and the role that shelters can play in achieving their ultimate goal — the elimination of all forms of homelessness in Canada.
Corner Brook’s Willow House executive director, Heather Davis, wrote a chapter in the book.
Davis has a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Guelph.
In “Beyond Shelters – Solutions to Homelessness in Canada from the Front Lines,” she gives her thoughts on how to limit harm to women in Canadian shelters, drawing from her experience working in the community.
Davis said the opportunity to write a chapter for the book came about through the Transition House Association of Newfoundland and Labrador (THANL).
Others working in the area of homelessness provided information for her to write her chapter, Davis said during a recent phone interview.
“It was about documenting our history as women’s shelters in our province, as part of this national landscape of shelter work in the broader scheme... shelters that are emerging... men’s shelters, or homeless shelters. We wanted to have representation as women’s shelters included in that conversation,” she said.
St. John’s was the first to establish a transition house in this province. Iris Kirby House (IKH) opened in 1981.
Today, there are 12 transition houses in Newfoundland and Labrador, including Willow House. Since opening its doors 35 years ago, Davis said Corner Brook’s domestic violence shelter has housed approximately 6,500 women and children.
Transition houses are much more than having a place to sleep, she said.
They provide other essential services for women and children escaping violence including transportation to the shelter, basic necessities such as food and hygiene products, safety planning, supportive counselling, assistance with applications to legal aid, financial supports for public housing and advocacy for the needs of women and their families.
“Beyond Shelters” (published by Lorimer Books) discusses such options as Housing First programs, hub models and culturally-specific programs. The book also offers insight into how shelters can address drug addiction, domestic violence, poverty and Indigenous issues.
Shelters have changed a great deal over the past 25 years.
Davis said today’s shelter workers listen to the women’s stories, value their experiences and do their best to learn about their needs so that they can respond to them accordingly.
“Typically, in women’s shelters, if you were an active user (of drugs or alcohol)... you weren’t able to get a bed in our shelters... We have drug problems and alcohol problems and mental health problems in our communities... there’s no way that women who have experienced trauma come through that without those similar problems. We’re really trying to do shelter work with women that meets them where they are, in their recovery process,” Davis said.
The book’s editor James Hughes worked as a senior administrator in social services for more than fifteen years. He served as Director General of the Old Brewery Mission, Quebec's largest centre serving homeless people and was Deputy Minister of Social Development in New Brunswick from 2008 to 2011.
Hughes is the author of “Early Intervention: How Canada's social programs can work better, save lives, and often save money.” He now works for the Montreal-based McConnell Foundation.
When asked if there is a way to end homelessness across the country, Davis said, while there isn’t a step-by-step program to do so, there are many innovative approaches to help people who find themselves homeless.
First of all, she said, it’s important to understand homelessness and how severe it is in Canada.
“Homelessness may look different from place to place... there are some innovative solutions. I think agencies and governments are starting to understand that we need to house people first and a housing first philosophy goes right through the book,” she said.
Once someone is safe and secure, with an affordable place to live, she said, they can work on other challenges they are facing in their lives.
Davis said there is a network of agencies ready to help people in crisis. Willow House’s 24-hour crisis line is 866-634-4198.
Transition Houses of Newfoundland and Labrador
Shelters for battered women and children
Kirby House - St. John's
O'Shaughnessy House - Carbonear
Grace Sparkes House - Marystown
Cara House - Gander
Willow House - Corner Brook
Libra House - Happy Valley-Goose Bay
Hope Haven - Labrador City
Nain Safe House - Nain
Selma Onalik Safe House - Hopedale
Kirkina House - Rigolet
Natuashish Safe House - Natuashish
Nukum Munik Shelter - Sheshatshiu