A mother reaches out to her child, who looks out a window, representing the struggle for people affected by intimate partner violence in finding housing.(Photo: Getty Images)

How Survivors Of Intimate Partner Violence Are Coping During A Housing Crisis

Survivors have always faced sisyphean hurdles to escape abusers. Soaring rents, housing crisis and inflation are making it harder.

THE LIVES OF Mary and her son were packed in two suitcases in the back of her car when she picked up the 12-year-old boy from school. It was only a few essentials: clothes, toiletries, her work laptop and a couple of her son’s belongings. There had been no time.

Mary held back tears as she told him, “I’m doing what I have to do to protect you.” Then she drove across the Greater Toronto Area to the shelter.

Mary is not her real name, but rather that of her favourite saint. She is hiding from an abusive estranged husband. It’s not safe to publish her name or other details that could identify her, such as the Asian country she’s from or the part of the GTA where she now lives.

When Mary and her son arrived at the shelter, they were sent to a hotel to isolate for several days. It was February 2022, and COVID-19 regulations were still in force. Then, they dragged their suitcases holding what little they had into a room at the shelter. It had a door with a lock, a nice, big window, two beds with plastic-covered, sagging mattresses and two dressers their belongings didn’t fill. For nearly five months, that room would be their home as Mary desperately searched for a new one.

“I never thought my life would be like this,” says Mary. “It’s a nightmare.”

Pull quote: “The issue of housing is one of the biggest issues for safety right now.”

Money, or lack of it, has always been a major hurdle for those trying to escape intimate partner violence and abuse. But that barrier has become much more difficult to overcome, as inflation, cost of living and housing prices across Canada skyrocket. A two-bedroom apartment in Toronto, on average, costs more than $3,400. In Ontario, a province where landlords can require first and last months’ rent up front, someone like Mary would need, on average, more than $6,800 in hand just to get a place where she and her son could have their own room. In Vancouver, two-bedroom units cost, on average, more than $3,900 a month. Nationally, the average is just over $2,200.

Following the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s definition of affordable housing, where no more than 30 percent of one’s income goes toward accommodation, someone in Toronto or Vancouver needs to earn upwards of $11,000 per month before taxes to afford the average rent. Canada-wide, that figure is more than $7,300 per month, or about $88,000 a year. But the average annual income for Canadian women, who make up the vast majority of intimate partner violence sufferers, is about $46,000. People most at risk of intimate partner violence—including those who are racialized, trans, recent immigrants, undocumented or have disabilities—earn on average even less.

When it comes to leaving an abusive situation, “You need a place to land, you need a place to go,” says Barb MacQuarrie, community director of the Centre for Research and Education on Violence against Women and Children at Western University in London, Ont. “If you’re very lucky these days—and I do mean lucky—you’ll get a place in a shelter. However, shelters are full, it’s no longer guaranteed that [at] the time you decide you want to leave there will be a bed available for you and your children. “So then money becomes even more important.”

It’s not just housing. Food prices rose in the past year at a rate not seen since the early 1980s, a trend that’s expected to continue. As of January 2023, overall food prices were 10.4 percent higher than the previous year. That means a weekly food bill of $100 in January 2022 could cost about $110.40 just a year later. Some items, like lettuce, flour, bread, pasta—typical staples for many families—increased far more.

“If you have children to support, you’re going to have to feed those children, you’re going to have to ensure that they continue to go to daycare or to school,” says MacQuarrie. “Trying to raise children under those circumstances can be so challenging that the choice between the abuse and poverty and day-to-day struggle for basic necessities—women go back [to] all the time.”

In some instances, that results in death—a woman is killed by her intimate partner approximately every six days in Canada. In two-thirds of homicides of women, an intimate partner is responsible. In another 28 percent of cases, it’s another family member. (In contrast, intimate partners are responsible for less than six percent of homicides of men).

For people in positions like Mary’s, it can be an impossible choice: live under ever-present threats of death, or flee into poverty, homelessness, hunger, uncertainty, an endless, cumulative cascade of challenges at a time when many are emotionally and psychologically exhausted and injured.

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MARY WAS SEXUALLY abused throughout her childhood by several family members. She couldn’t tell her parents, who, while loving, were themselves overwhelmed—her father worked long hours that took him away from home for weeks at a time, and her mother struggled to manage the household and five children on her own. “By the time I was 13 or 14, I didn’t even know who I was,” says Mary. “It affected me to such an extent that by the time I was 20, 21, I just shut down. I couldn’t function anymore.”

Mary barely managed to finish secondary school, and in her 20s, met a man who showered her with gifts and kind words. He wanted to marry her. “I chose him thinking I wouldn’t get anybody else, because I had such low self-esteem by that point in time,” she says. In 1999, they wed.

Within weeks, the relationship turned violent. It got worse a few years later when they immigrated to Canada. She was screamed at, insulted, brutally beaten. And she was utterly alone. “I called up my mom [back] and I told her I could not live in this relationship,” says Mary. “And she said, ‘No, you have to stay.’ I was a new immigrant, I did not know where to go. So, I stayed.”

In 2009, she had a son. The violence continued. When the boy was four or five, Mary’s husband told her he was going to kill her. “He said, ‘I’m going to cut you up into pieces and I’m going to hide you in such a way that even the cops will not find you.’” Terrified, Mary went to her priest. He counselled her to leave immediately.

That moment in 2015 marked the beginning of Mary’s journey toward safety and healing—and of her descent into the shelter system and unrelenting, jaw-cracking financial stress that has battered her physical, mental and emotional health.

Mary went to the police, who charged her husband with assault and uttering threats. He was arrested and, while he was released on bail almost immediately, a temporary restraining order kept him away. Mary was able to stay in the Toronto-area house they’d purchased, but she was saddled with the mortgage. Her husband had been the main income-earner, and she fell deeply into debt.

How Survivors Of Intimate Partner Violence Are Coping During A Housing Crisis

The moment the year-long restraining order expired, her husband announced his return. Mary took her son and left for a rented basement apartment. “I was so scared that he was coming back,” she says. “I had to protect myself and my child.” She wanted to sell the house to help make ends meet, but her husband refused. (After a three-year legal battle, the house sold, but the money remains in an escrow account awaiting a divorce settlement as Mary’s legal bills continue to mount.)

The rent for the basement apartment was $1,000 a month, about half of Mary’s salary. The landlord made her pay three months up front and then, after three months, announced that he was moving back into the basement unit. Mary had to move. She bounced from basement apartment to basement apartment—it was all she could afford—until 2018, when her priest put her in contact with a kindly couple who rented her a basement suite at a reasonable price, where she remained for almost four years.

In early 2022, the couple told Mary they were selling their home. Once again, she had to move.

Rent prices took a dip in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, but by the time Mary was searching for a place, they had bounced back and then some. With a monthly income of about $2,200, her entire salary wasn’t enough for an average one-bedroom apartment. She found a few places where her income would cover the rent, leaving her a couple hundred dollars for all her other expenses. But landlords wouldn’t rent to her because of her income. “Finally, I gave up,” says Mary.

She began calling shelters across the Greater Toronto Area. She was met with the same response time and again: “We’re full.” Even today, shelters continue to grapple with unprecedented strain following a spike in need during the pandemic, which saw domestic violence rates soar and ongoing shortages of staff, funding and other resources.

Mary heard that the only way to get a spot was to call over and over and over, every day. So she did. It took at least a week, but she landed one, as long as she got there within a couple hours to claim it. She didn’t have time to explain to her son what was happening before whisking him away to the shelter where, for the first six weeks, COVID-19 restrictions meant they couldn’t leave. He couldn’t go to school or see his friends, instead following classes virtually from his bed while Mary worked remotely on hers. “I did the right thing for me, but it was not a good thing for my son,” says Mary. “He is still traumatized.”

When restrictions eased, she made the two-hour round trip twice each weekday to bring him to and from his old school as she continued to work full-time and tried in vain to find housing for them.

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THE SUPPORT AVAILABLE to those escaping intimate partner violence varies widely. Rural areas typically lack shelters, housing and support services compared to larger urban centres. Support also depends on the province and how much funding it allots, as well as what non-profit agencies exist in any given location. “It’s a real patchwork,” says Andrea Gunraj, vice president of public engagement with the Canadian Women’s Foundation. “It’s definitely dependent on where you live, but it’s also dependent on who you are. This patchwork of non-profits is not an adequate solution when you’re talking about what needs to happen.”

Numerous advocates and experts point to a universal basic income as a step toward reducing vulnerability to intimate partner violence, as well as propping up other social programs to ensure people’s basic needs—whether it’s food, housing or health care—are met. Solving the housing crisis that’s gripping much of the country is vital. “The issue of housing is one of the biggest issues for safety right now,” says Gunraj.

Pull quote: “People would always say to me, ‘Well, why can’t you just leave him?’ Well, I tried that 15 times. There was nowhere I could go.”

According to Statistics Canada, residential facilities for victims of abuse across Canada turned away almost 500 people on a “snapshot” day in 2021. From the data available, 30 percent of those returned to the home of their abuser. More than 80 percent of shelters report the lack of affordable and appropriate long-term housing as one of the biggest challenges facing their residents. Intimate partner violence is a leading cause of homelessness for women.

A lack of access to shelters or housing was a major factor in Hilary Marks spending a decade in a violent, abusive relationship. Trafficked into the sex trade several decades ago, Marks bounced back and forth across the continent enduring exploitation and abuse at the hands of the man who sold her and those who paid for her. She wanted to flee, many times. But in each new city, she was faced with the same problem: There was nowhere safe for her. There were few transitional houses; some of those she did hear about did not welcome people involved in the sex trade, whether willingly or not.

“People would always say to me, ‘Well, why can’t you just leave him?’” says Marks, who now lives in Victoria, B.C., where she works in the shelter system. “Well, I tried that 15 times. There was nowhere I could go.”

Last November, the federal government announced a 10-year National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence, and has since budgeted hundreds of millions to provinces and territories to bolster their efforts. While some call it a positive step, it won’t have an immediate impact. In the short term, advocates say funds need to be injected into existing services and agencies to address the shortage of shelter spaces and offer immediate help with housing, food and other costs for those getting back on their feet.

“The government needs to play a role,” says Marks. “If we had 10 transition houses [here], they’d all be full. More women are going to get killed unless there are really good places for them to go.”

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IN JULY 2022, Mary had to leave the Toronto shelter where she’d lived with her son for five months. Across Canada, shelter stays are getting longer because people can’t find affordable long-term housing. This, in turn, means even fewer beds for those in acute crisis. In some instances, staff are forced to evict shelter residents to make room for others in need.

Desperate, Mary managed to negotiate a lease for a basement apartment for $1,600 a month. It’s no more secure or comfortable than previous places—her landlord lives upstairs and there’s no soundproofing, making her afraid to speak openly in her own home for fear of judgment. She worries whether the house will be sold or the rent increased, where she and her son would go then. She has about $500 a month left after rent for all their other needs.

That remaining money, Mary notes, is going toward the most important things in her life, like her son. It took her eight months to save up enough, and even then she has taken on debt to make it work, but last summer, Mary’s son was able to take swimming lessons.