Kate thought the hardest part of leaving her abusive husband would be mustering the courage to walk out of their house and never return. But in the months since she left, her hope of building a new life has dwindled.
The thing she needs most seems out of reach.
“I can’t try to find a job, I can’t better myself, I can’t be safe if I don’t have a home,” she said in a recent interview.
CBC News spoke to three women who have fled domestic abuse in Nova Scotia but have been forced to remain for months in shelters known as transition houses, as they search in vain for safe and affordable places to live.
They say they’ve been told by support workers it can take years to get into public housing, and other housing geared to income, including for women fleeing intimate partner violence, is full across the province.
This leaves the women, whom CBC News is not identifying by their real names because they fear for their safety, no choice but to try to find apartments at market rents in a province with low vacancy rates and soaring rental prices.
Two of the women said they are considering going back to their abusers because they don’t know what else to do. One of them worries she will lose full custody of her child because the pair are living long term in a women’s shelter.
They’re pleading with the provincial government for help.
“I think the provincial government isn’t taking it seriously, the lack of affordable housing,” Kate said. “When you have to turn women away and send them back to maybe their deaths, to an abusive husband in an abusive situation after they’ve found the courage to leave, just because we cannot find housing.”
Ann de Ste Croix, the provincial co-ordinator for the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia, said because of the current housing market, women are forced to remain for up to a year in transition houses, which are shelters for women and children who have fled abuse. Typically, she said, women are only supposed to stay for about six weeks.
De Ste Croix said last year, the 11 transition houses run by her organization provided services to about 4,200 women and children across the province. But the shelters are often at capacity, which can mean turning women away.
“Risks include women becoming homeless, and often that is hidden from our view,” she said. “So we do have women who live on the streets, but also it can look like couch-surfing or trading sex for a bed.”
In small towns, it’s the same story.
One of the smallest transition houses in the province, Autumn House in Amherst, N.S., is usually full.
“If they meet our mandate and there’s some real risk, we’ll take a woman here, we’ll turn our living room into a overflow room,” said Dawn Ferris, the executive director of the Cumberland County Transition House Association.
Waiting for a bed
Kate had a big house in the country with her young child, her husband and a family dog, but psychological abuse and coercive control was just below the surface.
When she realized she was being abused, she decided to take her daughter and go. But the women’s shelter in her area was full. She waited two weeks in fear until she got a phone call saying there was an open bed for her.
Kate said leaving gave her freedom, but it came with difficulty. Working with a housing support worker for months, she still hasn’t been able to find anything she can afford on her employment insurance payments.
“I see nowhere to go,” she said. “I’m going to be stuck there. I’m going to have to spend Christmas there.”
‘We need to do more’
Housing Minister John Lohr said in an interview the Nova Scotia government is “deeply sympathetic” to people fleeing domestic violence. They are put at the top of the public housing wait-list, but they still have to wait for a unit to become available.
As of January, the public housing priority-access wait-list, which included 117 people across the province, had an average wait time of 1.6 years. For the 4,790 people on the non-priority list, the average wait is just over two years.
When asked if the wait times show a need for a larger supply of public housing, Lohr said “we haven’t ruled it out categorically building new.”
“I will say that in our internal discussion, we talk about every option,” he said.
“We’re doing all kinds of things,” Lohr said. “We know we need to do more, and especially for victims fleeing family violence, our heart goes out to them.”
According to a Department of Community Services spokesperson, Nova Scotia’s Status of Women Office provides $7,405,345 in annual core funding to transition houses.
In March, the province announced an additional $8 million to help organizations supporting women experiencing gender-based violence meet the increased demand for their services and to address rising operating costs.
The women who spoke with CBC News said they’re happy to be safe, but living in a transition house has its difficulties.
One woman, Sarah, decided to leave her partner last winter when he choked her unconscious. For the first few months, she couch-surfed and stayed with family. She’s been in a transition house since April.
Sarah said there’s little privacy, making it hard to relax, and her small bedroom never feels like home.
“One of the main things for everybody is sleep,” Sarah said. “If we can get sleep, at least we can start to feel better, start to heal. But it’s hard to do that there.”
Kate said some days her young daughter struggles in the communal setting.
“One night she had thrown everything from all the drawers and all the suitcases on the bed,” Kate said. “She’s yelling she wants to go home. So eventually I just explained to her that mommy and daddy have separate homes, and for right now, the transition home is mommy’s home.”
Though Kate worries for her daughter, her biggest concern is she won’t get full custody of her child because of their living situation.
Morgan Manzer, a child protection lawyer with Nova Scotia Legal Aid, said judges and decision-markers with Community Services become “very concerned” about children when their parents can’t find long-term housing.
“It poses a very significant and real barrier for folks who are trying to have their children placed in their care or remain in their care,” said Manzer, who noted most of his cases can be connected to the lack of affordable housing.
When asked how the Department of Community Services evaluates the risk of a child staying in a shelter environment with a mother, a spokesperson would not say.
“The goal of DCS will always be to look out for the best interests of the child,” spokesperson Christina Deveau wrote in an email. “We work with community organizations such as transition houses to find solutions that allow for safe environments for children where they can stay with their parent.”
No end in sight
Mary, who is in her 60s, left her husband of more than 30 years, escaping physical and psychological abuse. She’s now on income assistance and is paid $950 a month.
She’s been in a transition house for six months, and said as time passes she’s starting to feel like she has no choice but to go back to her husband.
“The housing support workers say their hands are tied. They can’t make these apartments appear. They can’t. They do the best they can and they show us, but everything on the list starts at like $1,400,” Mary said.
“I just don’t see an end. I think I’m going to have to go back. I don’t know what else I can do.”
People in Nova Scotia affected by intimate partner violence can call or text the provincial toll-free line at 1-855-225-0220 or contact their local shelter organization.