New study looks at the issues faced by women experiencing homelessness
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New study looks at the issues faced by women experiencing homelessness

Region of Waterloo

Beyond physical violence, women experiencing homelessness in the region face a variety of threats, verbal, mental, racist and the like, finds a new study.

Waterloo Community Justice Initiatives last week presented their findings from The Willow Project, a project to understand the experiences of women experiencing homelessness and violence in the community.

Those attending the virtual presentation June 23  represented the emergency shelter, healthcare, counseling and restorative justice sectors as well as concerned citizens.

The Willow Project is a collaboration between Community Justice Initiatives and the YWCA of Kitchener.

“We were able to share our hopes for this project, which include system changes, infusing shelter services with some of the needs identified by the women, and continuous inclusion of people with lived experience throughout this project,” said Kate Crozier, director of programs with the organization.

 Waterloo Community Justice Initiatives is a restorative justice organization focusing on solving conflict using peaceful resolution strategies.  The survey was conducted in the winter, with 48 participants. Cis, trans, two-spirit and gender-diverse individuals were surveyed, and 13 were interviewed.

“We know that they have experiences of violence, but there’s never been any research done in our community to ask the women themselves exactly what these experiences are, and how often they happen,” said Crozier.

“So we wanted to know of course about physical and sexual violence but also verbal, financial and the homophobic and transphobic types of violence they might experience. We were pretty shocked to see what came back.”

Forty-four per cent of women surveyed reported they experience violence daily, and 35 per cent of them said they experienced it twice a week. The types of violence documented in the report were transphobia, homophobia, racism, sexual harm,  and verbal, emotional or mental, financial, physical or spiritual violence.

“So we heard also from women that their inability to find safety was pretty profound.

“A lot of women talked about needing to leave their home because it was unsafe. So they find themselves in the shelter system, where they often don’t feel safe being co-housed with other women. And then often need to leave the shelter during the day – in the streets, they don’t feel safe,” she said.

“Women will strategize to be around large groups of people rather than being alone as a self-protective measure. But sometimes that violence comes from strangers and forms of harassment, who are letting women who are homeless know they don’t want them near them.”

Crozier said it was very valuable to learn more about how women experiencing homelessness cope with the violence.

“First of all, understanding how women navigate this,” said Crozier. “How do they go out into the world each day and try to be as safe as possible?”

Crozier said the strategies the women use that came out in the survey include sticking close to other people, and not ever telling anyone that they are homeless as the stigma could result in worse treatment.

This survey focused on women who had recently or were currently using emergency shelter services in the region’s urban areas, as participants were found through contacts with homeless shelters and word of mouth. 

Crozier says there are plans to conduct another survey of women who are experiencing hidden homelessness, that is women who stay somewhere temporarily such as on someone’s couch or spare room because they don’t have anywhere else to go. This survey could include participants in the townships, said Crozier.

Crozier says the next steps involve finding the resources the community already has to address the problems.

“Often some of the best ways to address these big problems are to take a strengths-based lens on what your community has to offer. And then we can use that to help find ways to support the foundation of that.”

“For example, we know people are addressing gender-based harm amongst families and neighborhoods and communities that might be invisible to us. And so we want to hear about that and learn how can we help support that work. Where are there gaps that we can get others involved with in addressing.”

“This work is going to involve the community at all sorts of levels.”

A series of listening sessions between women with lived experiences of homelessness and restorative justice practitioners will be held over the summer, beginning with one that was held earlier this week.

“Listening sessions are a way of sharing the wisdom of experience as well as building relationships between people who aren’t currently connected,” said Crozier.

A second part of the research about racialized Muslim women and their experiences of domestic violence is underway. The research will also be looking at barriers to shelter use and the use of informal arrangements and other alternatives. This research is being led by the Coalition of Muslim Women and is expected to be complete in the fall.

Anyone interested in learning more can connect with Crozier at KateC@cjiwr.com.

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