The Howe Sound Women's Centre Society (HSWCS) is calling on the province for emergency funds and the establishment of a Whistler transition home after a woman and child were turned away from the Sea to Sky's only long-term women's and children shelter last month.
On Sept. 29, staff at Pearl's Place Transition House in Squamish was forced to find alternative accommodation outside of the community for a young mother and baby seeking shelter, leading to calls to the province for emergency funding to increase the facility's capacity from six beds to eight. Pearl's Place is a safe house offering a 30-day stay for women and children impacted by domestic abuse, mental health issues, addiction, and chronic homelessness. A Pemberton safe home also offers 10-day stays for women impacted by abuse, but there's no facility in Whistler, which could better service the needs of the corridor, according to HSWCS executive director Sheila Allen.
“Having some sort of safe home or transition house facility in Whistler would be the ideal situation,” she said. “If you have a mom with kids in school who has a job in Whistler and needs to leave in a crisis situation, for example, she can't necessarily quit her job and live in Squamish for a month or take her kids out of school.”
Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden said she is “is acutely aware” of the funding challenges faced by the society, but that establishing a transition house in Whistler is not something that's been discussed by council.
The RMOW provides funding in the form of Community Enrichment Grants to the HSWCS, to the tune of $12,500 this year.
In the first nine months of this year, the transition house received 142 referrals for women and 60 for children, with 44 women and 24 children housed at the facility. The occupancy rate over the course of 2012/13 was 35 per cent, according to HSWCS stats, and is 38 per cent for the first quarter of this year.
“This rate of occupancy makes it a challenge to increase funding to an eight-bed level year-round,” wrote B.C. housing Minister Rich Coleman* in an email.
The major challenge, according to Allen, has been dealing with the complex needs of the women accessing service in Squamish since the centre's mandate was expanded last year.
“We're opened up to serving women in need of housing who may have multiple barriers, meaning they may have mental health issues or chronic homelessness issues and so forth. The difficulty in that is it's a much more complicated population to serve,” she said. “We might have a house with someone who's detoxing, someone who has mental wellness challenges, and maybe somebody else who has other complex problems. Is that necessarily the best fit to now bring in a family with kids? Maybe not. So in essence, all seven of our beds aren't full but we're full, we can't take other people, and we can't necessarily kick those people out who are already there to make room for others.”
She said Pearl's Place new mandate to service more women in need has also led to skewed occupancy rates, a major determining factor of funding for provincial officials.
“The way (the province is) ranking statistics, they're saying it's full if every bed is slept in, but realistically it's full if we cant take more people in,” she said. “It's funny because the way they've opened up the mandate actually changes the way in which we serve people, so it could potentially make those statistics askew.”
The budget for the Squamish house has remained the same, at nearly $339,000, since 2007, said Allen, despite rising operational costs. The society is requesting the province deliver emergency funds to increase that facility's capacity as well as enable a full-time attached coordinator position and paid support workers at the Pemberton Safe Home.
Sea to Sky MLA Jordan Sturdy said it's a concern the province is listening to closely.
“We always seek to find solutions for any of these situations. They're always unfortunate, and certainly it always is a challenge. Hopefully this is an anomaly,” he said. “We listen on a case-by-case basis to the community organizations associated with providing these services and every time a case is brought forward for additional funding, certainly the province listens to it and gives it due consideration.”
Fundraising and donations from the Whistler community made up the bulk of money required to build the Whistler Women's Drop-In Centre, which opened in March 2012, a clear sign that the resort cares about the challenges faced by the HSWSC, said Allen.
“I know if the community was more aware of what these needs were in terms of sheltering women they would probably come to the table and help,” she said. “Now if the government can also come to the table I think we can do something.”
Allen said she's already been in discussion with two individuals in Whistler to find space for a potential transition house in the resort.
*A previous version of this article attributed a quote by B.C. Minister Responsible for Housing Rich Coleman to Minister of Social Development and Social Innovation Don McRae. The Question regrets the error.