Westshore transition housing for women & children fleeing violence
50 new homes will bring much-needed support
A different kind of housing is under construction in Langford, and this time it isn’t being driven by a developer. It won’t show up on any map, and you probably won’t ever know it’s there. The new building is transitional housing for women and gender-diverse people leaving violence—and it’s long overdue.
The Victoria Women’s Transition House Society (VWTHS) operates an emergency shelter in Victoria, but the longest someone can stay is 30 days, per provincial regulation. This means if a victim can’t find housing in a month, they may end up back in an abusive relationship.
“The national average in Canada is 6.3 attempts at leaving an abusive relationship,” said VWTHS executive director Makenna Reilly.
The new units being built in Langford are second-stage housing where people can live for up to two years. It’s one tool being added to the South Island to help people avoid going back to an abuser.
“The question of ‘Why doesn't she leave?’ is really an affront because, ‘Why does he do it?’” Reilly said. “People are threatened. Their pets are threatened, their kids are threatened, their property is threatened. They don't have life necessities like housing and an income. There are lots of reasons why people can't get out of abusive relationships.”
Not to mention how difficult it is to find affordable housing.
Need for help in the Westshore is ‘huge’ and growing
Data specific to the Westshore isn’t readily available, but any service provider can tell you they know the need is immense. Liz Nelson is the executive director at Pacific Centre Family Services Association, where they offer the Stop the Violence counselling program, as a group drop-in session or for individuals. It’s geared towards women, transgender, and non-binary people who have experienced or are experiencing violence at home.
Nelson says 250 clients are in the Stop the Violence program each year, but the wait list for new clients is eight months long.
“The population growth in the Westshore is astronomical compared to the Capital Regional District. The need is huge,” she said. “We need more resources. The eight-month wait for counselling is heartbreaking for us.”
Though, she’s thrilled to have the new housing units coming, especially for Westshore victims with children who are fleeing violent homes.
“If they have to get housing downtown, they’re having to leave their community and change schools, which makes things even that much harder. [The housing] can’t happen fast enough as far as I’m concerned,” Nelson said.
Pacific Centre Family Services Society (which recently opened the Westshore Community Health Centre on top of its long-time counselling programs) will collaborate with VWTHS in Langford to expand capacity as much as they can, but demand keeps increasing and not just because of population growth.
Incidents of domestic and intimate partner violence rose significantly during the pandemic. VWTHS’s wait lists have skyrocketed. In 2021, they took 178 women and 109 children into shelters, but had to turn away 120 women because they had no rooms. Currently they have more than 100 women on their waiting list for Stop the Violence counselling. The VWTHS is most known for its 24-hour crisis line (250-385-6611). Ten years ago, the support line received fewer than 2,000 calls a year. Last year they took more than 5,000.
Police reports also show increasing incidents of violence in the Westshore, even though data isn’t regularly reported on specific types of crime. The last detailed report the Westshore RCMP released was for the first six months of 2019 when they responded to 285 calls that involved family or intimate partner violence. In the Capital region that year, there were 898 recorded incidents of intimate partner violence. That rose to 936 in 2020, and by 2021 there were 1,027. And that’s only what gets reported to police.
Domestic violence is not always physical, and reported numbers are chronically low
The Westshore RCMP reported hundreds more calls about domestic disturbance where “no assault took place.”
The criminal definition of assault is physical which means emotional and psychological abuse is missed. Randall Garrison, the MP for Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke, has introduced a private members’ bill that would make coercive and controlling behaviour in intimate relationships a criminal offence.
“Right now it’s often the case where someone asks for help, and the police are bound by, ‘Well, there has to be physical injury.’ I use the example of Gabriel Wortman, the shooter in Nova Scotia where he forced his partner to move to a rural property, took her cell phone and took the wheels off her car. When she asked for help, the RCMP said none of those individually are a criminal offence,” Garrison said.
“So my bill says that when you observe a pattern of behaviour like that, they can intervene.”
Officially reported incidents of domestic abuse are chronically low, not just because of the legal definition of abuse, but because people are afraid to call for help.
“In Canada I can tell you one thing: If you look at police department reporting, they only report about 20% of what's actually happening. Because people don't come in. They don't reach out, they don't call,” Reilly said.
“Westshore is like any other community. It’s happening. There are a lot of cases here.”
Second-stage housing gives more time to get on their feet
Among the 50 units, two will be short term “transition housing” apartments for emergency stays of up to 30 days. But people can live in the other 48 units for up to two years. There are a mix of studio apartments and multi-bedroom suites to accommodate families. A handful of units will be completely furnished, from bed linens to cutlery, so a victim can leave immediately without packing anything. The housing is available for cis-gender women, transgender women, two-spirit, and non-binary people, and their dependant children.
VWTHS can’t guarantee housing for people once their time limit is up at the transition or second-stage homes, but they do have people on staff to help clients find housing, and are working hard to build partnerships with affordable housing providers so their clients are on the list.
More than just shelter, VWTHS provides emergency crisis care, counselling, legal aid, and safety planning
When people come to the shelter, VWTHS has a process to keep their location confidential which includes cancelling any phone tracking apps, to make sure abusers cannot track them down. That’s also why the location of the building under construction won’t be shared. If someone does find the home, VWTHS has a close partnership with local police departments to ensure they get a fast response to keep the victims safe.
Funding of $23.6 million for this project is coming from BC Housing, through the province’s $7-billion housing commitment. There is no rent charged for the short-term transition houses, capped at 30-day stays. Rent for second-stage housing will be set at 30% of income, or equal to the provincial shelter rate for people who receive income assistance. Construction is expected to be complete by fall 2024.
‘If someone is in trouble, don't be a bystander’
If you suspect someone you know is in an abusive situation, it’s no longer a private family matter, Reilly says.
“People need to realize this isn't ‘just a family matter and I should mind my own business.’ If someone is in trouble, don't be a bystander. Make a call to police. Keep yourself safe, but know that you're helping someone,” she said.
The VWTHS website has a lot of information and resources, especially their 24-hour crisis line: 250-385-6611. That line is available for people being abused as well as people who see someone else being abused. All information is kept confidential and anonymous.
“We've had people who are being abused who don't even recognize that that's what's happening. It's just like, ‘Oh, he was in a bad mood,’ or ‘He was just kidding around,’ and they'll minimize it. So learning what abuse really is the first step.”