Opinion: A harsh dilemma for BC transition houses

When news broke in The Tyee this month of women having to leave a BC transition house into homelessness, the story on the surface appeared to be about an unwieldy transition house treating people unfairly.

But community social services know that there’s much more to those kinds of stories. For transition houses in particular, they face constant pressure in trying to balance inadequate resources with the high number of women trying to escape intimate partner violence.

Former Board Voice executive director Jody Paterson is continuing to work part-time with Board Voice as an advocate and non-profit lobbyist on the issue of intimate partner violence and brain injury. She wrote this comment piece in response to highlight the grand dilemma that transition houses face every day in BC. The piece was published by The Tyee on June 28.

Here’s the text of that commentary:

BC’s transition houses for women trying to leave a violent partner are living the cliché about ending up between a rock and a hard place.

They’ve been living it for many years now, caught between the urgent needs of women who really, really need a safe place to stay and be supported, and a significant lack of next-stage housing to move women along to once the worst of their crisis has passed.

It’s a long-standing issue that every now and then blows up in the media, as it did last week in an article in The Tyee. The article featured a number of understandably upset women now facing homelessness after their time was up at a Victoria transition house and they hadn’t yet found another place to live.

Transition houses and second stage programs face some tough choices in trying to manage this constant conundrum. Some choose to extend the maximum stays that most BC transition houses and second stage programs have in place. That allows women to stay as long as necessary while suitable housing is found.

But allowing women to stay as long as necessary means having to say no a lot to other women trying to escape their own violent home lives, because there aren’t enough transition house beds or second stage units.

Others enforce a maximum stay rule to ensure that more women can access vital services. But in a housing crisis like the one BC is experiencing, that can mean turning a woman out into homelessness if she has used up her time and still has no place to go.

It’s a painful dilemma for community organizations whose whole raison d’etre is to help women get out of violence quickly and support them while they build a safe, solid life for themselves.

Whichever of the two choices these women-serving non-profit agencies pick, it will be the wrong one for somebody. Either they risk putting women into homelessness because housing can’t be found fast enough, or they are turning away women in need because of the need to extend other women’s stays longer and longer.

There are solutions, of course. More affordable housing is most integral to solving this problem long-term, just as it’s integral to so many other social concerns being compounded and complicated by BC’s deepening crisis in affordable housing.

The BC Society of Transition Houses noted in a 2022 report that only 25 per cent of women departing transition houses in the province leave to permanent housing, and a scant four per cent of that group find permanent housing that’s affordable.

In the short term, BC transition houses need to be sufficiently resourced and expanded so that they can both accommodate the number of women fleeing violence as well as let women stay as long as they need to. Without that support, transition houses are being left to make the extremely difficult choice between moving women into homelessness when their time is up, or leaving them trapped in violent situations because there’s no place for them to go.

With the issue of intimate partner violence in particular, another fundamental problem is a societal expectation that when there is violence in the home, it’s the victim who is expected to leave.

A woman would have no need to flee violence in the home if the perpetrator of that violence was instead the one forced to leave. Our own systems—child welfare, income assistance, health, criminal justice—create the conditions that leave women experiencing violence at high risk of homelessness and poverty.

As caring human beings, any reader would feel deeply for the women interviewed in The Tyee’s piece, forced to leave the transition house with nowhere to go. It’s unbelievable to think that women experiencing violence from their partners are ending up homeless as well.

But service providers also feel for the transition house that was the focus of these women’s complaints. All of them are having to make brutally hard decisions every day around who stays, who goes and who gets the next open bed. That’s the difficult environment that BC transition houses are forced to exist in.

More than 40 per cent of Canadian women experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime. Our society is long overdue to act in meaningful ways to change that, just as we’re long overdue to address an unprecedented housing crisis affecting virtually everyone who our social safety net is intended to help.

In the meantime, hundreds of transition houses coast to coast will continue trying to do the best they can, with limited resources at their disposal and no control over housing availability. It’s a tough job.