The Housing Crisis for Women Fleeing Violence in Surrey

By Corrine Arthur and Sarah Rehimi

Originally published in The Volcano

Corrine Arthur
Corrine Arthur

Where do I live? How do I pay for it? How can I keep my kids safe?

The Surrey Women’s Centre has been around for over 20 years. Its priority is women and children who have experienced violence. It offers a range of programs, from a mobile assault response team, to helping women go through court, to supporting them as they get re-established after leaving a violent situation.

The challenge for many of the women who come to the Women’s Centre is the initial separation from a partner who is violent. A main concern is, “What do I need in order to make sure that my children and I can stay safe?” A huge part of that is finances, because often the partner has been paying the bills and the woman hasn’t been able to work. Many women stay because they feel that they can monitor the situation better by having eyes on it, rather than being separated and sending the children to visit on their own. So the immediate concerns when a woman decides to leave are: where do I live, how do I finance myself, and how do I keep my kids safe?

Surrey has one-eighth the social infrastructure that Vancouver has. So even though our populations are similar in size (and Surrey is soon expected to pass Vancouver), we’re really behind. A couple of years ago, there were under sixty spaces for women, and the Women’s Centre sees four thousand women a year. Hundreds of women need our services every month so those sixty beds fill up really quickly.

Transition houses are safe places for women who are fleeing domestic violence or violence of any sort; unfortunately there are not enough spaces. We call and get the response, “I’m full, I’m full, I’m full” so the woman has to go to Vancouver, Abbotsford or even Hope. But her kids are going to school in Surrey and this is where her family is; maybe she has a job in Surrey. So when she just needs to get out of a violent situation and be safe, she is disconnected from some of the most important supports. It’s a reason for her to just stay rather than leave.

The same with shelters; finding shelters that are women-only or safe is difficult. For some women, recovery houses are the only housing option they have. But in Surrey many of the recovery houses are not regulated and can be places where there’s violence and drugs. So while residents are counted as being “housed” it’s not a stable home for them to be able to work on the rest of their lives. Having a house is the first step; if you don’t have that it’s so hard.

Finding affordable, adequate and secure housing is very difficult. It’s not unusual for a two-bedroom place to be well over $1,000.00 per month and income assistance is just not keeping pace with that. If you have children who are different genders, that requires a separate bedroom for each child; that could mean you’re looking for a three or four bedroom place on inadequate income assistance rates. It’s not doable. So women are relying on family, and hopefully that’s a positive thing for them, though for many it’s not.

When women don’t have enough money to get housing, they have to make very precarious decisions. So they might need to rent a place with others, but then somebody can’t make the rent that month and they are all vulnerable to being suddenly homeless. It’s tragic that women stay in situations of violence because it’s better than the alternative of poverty and potential homelessness for them and their children.

No matter how well-meaning service providers are, it doesn’t change the structural realities: insufficient income assistance, a lack of social and supportive housing, an exhausted supply of rent supplements, and market housing that is unaffordable, inaccessible, and insecure. And women fleeing violent domestic situations face pervasive social stigma and discrimination from landlords, along with a myriad of other challenges.

We work with so many extremely resilient women who say, “No matter what’s in front of me, it’s better that we get out than that we stay in these situations.” At the Surrey Women’s Centre we will do everything within our power to help them access the things that are the most critical and we’re pretty relentless in getting them what they need.