Study eyes role of women’s shelters in communities

The role of women’s shelters in Ontario’s communities is complex while the multitude of services they provide is essential, according to the first phase of a study looking into the true role shelters play in the lives of abused women and children.

The first phase results of the Ontario Shelter Research Project, a massive collaborative study funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation, were released at Western last week in hopes the findings will assist shelters in evaluating their services in order to better meet the needs of their clients.

The project team, consisting of shelter directors, Western researchers and the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children, spoke to 68 executive directors, 41 staff members and 75 clients of Ontario shelters.

Among the key findings are confirmations that shelters are a safe refuge and provide women and children the time, emotional and material support as well as a means of connecting with various community services necessary to move forward.

“But what people may not know is that shelters do much more than this,” said Michele Hansen, the project lead and the executive director of the Huron Women’s Shelter. “Shelters act as a key community hub where information, support and referrals are accessed by women, for themselves and their children, and at a time of great need.

“It’s not only what shelters provide but how they provide it.”

Hansen explained women who participated in the study appreciated the care and respect they received from shelters, as well continued support well beyond their stay.

“This kind of service needs to be seen as a positive sign of the benefit shelters provide, and not to be seen as a failure of the shelter system. At a time when the governments are scrutinizing all services to ensure there is value, we are pleased to be able to demonstrate that shelters provide so much more than just a bed,” Hansen said.

Nadine Wathen, a project team member who teaches in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western, said while it is easy to measure the success of women’s shelters by counting the number of beds and bodies in them, it’s not an accurate depiction of a shelter’s role in a community.

“The (initial) research was to distill the success indicators – what tells us that shelters have been successful in helping women,” Wathen said.

“Now we need to develop an evaluation framework that’s flexible and modular. We can’t evaluate every shelter with the same sets of measures,” she added.

She said shelters in rural communities, for instance, or those serving Aboriginal women, will have different criteria for evaluating their success in helping abused women and children move past hardship and forward with their lives in a way that ensures safety, respect and self-sufficiency.

Shelters provide:

  • Safe refuge for women and their children at a time of crisis;
  • Material support, including food, housing, clothing and other necessities;
  • Information and system navigation to help women interact with other services they need;
  • Education and support for self-efficacy to help women, and their children, move on to a safe life;
  • Services and/or referrals for abused men and abusive men/fathers.

The Ontario Trillium Foundation granted $204,850 over two years to the Ontario Shelter Research Project. The project team will be applying for further funding to continue and apply research findings.