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A Place That Feels Like Home

March 27, 2023
Dicle Han

This blog originally appeared on Homeless Hub.

Survivors of gender-based violence can experience homelessness due to lack of access to safe and secure housing. They may be unable to access the local housing market for various reasons, such as the stigma associated with gender-based violence, or because they cannot afford rent. Due to these barriers, survivors are likely to go  to an emergency shelter (35%) or stay with family (22%) or friends (18%) as their initial housing option. In some cases, they may live in cars or other temporary arrangements.  

This type of homelessness is often overlooked and therefore “hidden” in official government statistics and research, making it more difficult to accurately measure and address the issue. The ‘invisibility’ of these experiences of homelessness means that the extent of the problem is often underestimated, and the necessary support and resources are not provided to those affected.  

WomanACT’s Successful Tenancies research worked with survivors to understand their experiences navigating the private rental market in Toronto.

Case study: Sara 

Sara’s temporary housing journey started when she decided she would not put up with the recurring violence from her husband and decided to leave her home.  

Like many women in this situation, she called for help from her family and sought refuge at her brother’s house despite years of estrangement. Although her brother was willing to provide her with a safe haven, staying with him was not the same as returning home. The tension between them was palpable, and it was difficult for her to feel at peace in such an unfamiliar and awkward atmosphere.

“I am a burden. I am imposing on my brother’s life and causing his inconvenience and stress.  He is being put in the middle of my family drama. I have imposed on him financially. He may have some resentment towards me, but he hasn’t kicked me out yet.”

Her words highlight a tension between gratitude for housing and frustration with living in inadequate circumstances​. In this case, her temporary housing led to stress, fear, physical discomfort, and frustration.

“I must follow my brother’s rules and expectations in his home. I feel lost and have no foundation to stand on.  I don’t know what will happen in the future.  I have no car, so I need to ask for rides everywhere. I feel lonely and insecure.”

WomanACT’s research reveals that like Sara, many women in temporary housing struggle with these conflicting emotions. When asked about how they felt about temporary housing, some of the research participants shared that they felt “hopeless”, “anxious”, “overwhelmed” and “uncomfortable”. While others expressed more positive feelings such as “thoughtful”, “grateful” and “fortunate”. For many women, temporary housing is only a short-term solution to a long-term problem. It can also be a source of stress and insecurity, as women struggle to make sense of their new environment and adjust to a new lifestyle.   

All of the survivors who participated in the research had at least one issue regarding the safety, privacy, or the conditions of the house where they were temporarily residing. Some of them did not have access to a private room or a bathroom. Others had to live in an isolated or remote area without any work opportunities or with scarce transportation facilities and limited access to services.  

The lack of a safe and private space to call home can prevent individuals from feeling a sense of belonging or feeling connected to their community, which is an essential part of having a home. The research illustrates that having a home is about more than just having a physical space to live in, but about having access to resources, opportunities, and a sense of safety and security within one’s environment. 

Barriers to Stability 

Sara’s experience also highlights how many women in temporary housing are working on becoming more resilient and trying to stabilize themselves financially. However, there are many obstacles that they must overcome in order to achieve these things.  

“Challenge number one is finding proper housing without having issues with landlords. They ask me who my last reference was, and for credit checks. Challenge number two is having a proper space for me to make phone calls for jobs.”

Nonetheless she does not give in. She tries to re-build her life by developing a community.

“I found a few people that walk daily in my area and I will accompany them a few days a week. I have been very secluded and to myself. I have not introduced myself to new people and felt lonely. Now that I have been attending some women’s groups online, they encouraged me to meet some new people and create a support group for myself in my area.” 

Sara’s experience is an example of how homelessness is broader than male-centric definitions like sleeping rough or living in shelters. Sara defines homelessness as “when you don’t have a place you go to everyday where you are safe, and when you cannot be independent to take care of yourself.” 

Her hopes for the future provide us with an answer to the question of what makes a place a “home’:

“I hope to live one day in a place that feels like ‘home’ and I’m happy, safe, secure, proud, grateful and not afraid.”

Next Steps: Working to Expand Housing Options 

Using this knowledge, Successful Tenancies plans to increase the capacity of housing providers to better meet the needs of survivors of gender-based violence, through training, building networks and partnerships.  

WomanACT is conducting research to better understand the policies, programs, and practices that support women to remain in their own home when leaving a violent relationship. We engage survivors and stakeholders to work together, develop policy recommendations and advocate for system change.  

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