For the first time in a long while, the Central Alberta Women’s Emergency Shelter will be full of women and children over Christmas.
It’s far from an ideal situation, since families usually prefer to be in their own places for the holidays, said the shelter’s executive director, Ian Wheeliker.
But he estimates about 30 mothers and kids will be spending Christmas at the 40-bed facility because “there’s nowhere for them to go” — due to a shortage of affordable and safe housing in Red Deer.
The local housing shortage has been plaguing the shelter since 2013. Usually the emergency shelter has been able to take in annually about 600 women and kids who are fleeing domestic violence. But in 2014, Wheeliker said the overall number is expected to be only about 500 because clients have had to stay at the shelter longer, due to a local housing shortage.
It was roughly the same situation last year, he added.
Wheeliker noted clients are now spending an average of 22 days in the Red Deer shelter, which is about on-par with the length of stays in Calgary and Edmonton shelters. This is much longer than in previous years, when clients spent an average of 14 days in the shelter before moving into an apartment or townhouse.
At the same time, Wheeliker notes the area’s population has been steadily growing. But the Alberta government has decided not to fund any shelter expansions. This means that even if private fundraising could pay for bricks-and-mortar expansion costs, no extra government money would be provided for higher operational expenses.
The government believes the market should step in to deal with demands for more affordable housing. But Wheeliker said the reality is there’s not much money in developing low-cost housing. That’s why government grants are generally needed to stimulate these projects.
He’s not sure how many of these grants will be provided in 2015, since the price of oil is so low. “The economic reality will have an impact. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.”
Although he estimates 400 to 500 affordable housing units are badly needed in Red Deer, “most of the housing that’s been built here in the past five years is in the $400,000 to $500,000 range for a single dwelling. That’s not affordable for our clients.
“There hasn’t been any new apartments or four-plexes built.”
With clients forced to stay longer at the shelter, Wheeliker said there’s been less space to accept other women and children leaving volatile domestic situations. When possible, they are referred to shelters in Rocky Mountain House or Camrose.
To try to avoid more “turnaways” in future, a triage system is being developed by shelter workers to help families remain longer in the community, and to prioritize those who need to be admitted because of a high safety risk.
Wheeliker said shelter staff will assist clients by working with Housing First programs and the Red Deer Housing Authority. They will be helping women obtain court protection orders through the courts. Only the women and children at greatest risk of violence will likely get into shelters in future as the area’s population keeps growing, he predicted.
Since the shelter will be “pretty darned full” this Christmas, staff are planning for the holiday. “We’ll look after them and make sure they are warm and safe while we look at finding other housing alternatives,” said Wheeliker.
Red Deer residents have been donating gifts for clients, he added. “Presents have been rolling in.” But there’s still a need for some new pajamas, as well as some used hats, coats and boots for children under age eight and younger. Cash donations to the shelter are also welcome.
As well, he said shelter clients could always use items throughout the year that will help them set up house again, once an apartment is found for them — things like brooms, mops, kitchen supplies, bedding.
“The community always thinks of us,” he said, and shelter staff and clients are grateful.