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Shiva Nourpanah: Addressing housing crisis means also addressing violence against women

This article was originally published in the Chronicle Herald. It is republished here with the author’s kind permission.

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – At the outset of the pandemic in spring 2020, “Stay the blazes home!” — a phrase uttered by former premier Stephen McNeil — became a rallying call across all corners of Nova Scotia.

Lost in this call to action was the acknowledgement that for hundreds of women and children across our province, home is the farthest thing from the safest place to stay.

“Stay the blazes home;” it’s a phrase that offers up not only a conundrum for women and children facing daily domestic violence, but also a quandary for those whose “homes” don’t meet societal expectations.

We were reminded of this earlier this month, as we watched protesters, arms linked, standing in front of tent encampments set to be torn down by the city, trying to protect the spaces that a number of our fellow Nova Scotians call “home.”

It was a poignant image to behold, leading to the amplification of a message that so desperately needs to be heard: Housing is a basic human right, and without it, no other social issues — including mental health, addiction, domestic violence — can be effectively addressed.

The member organizations of the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia (THANS), which run supports and services across the province for women who have experienced violence, have noticed that omitted from the current conversation around homelessness and access to safe affordable housing is the acknowledgement that the issue of housing is gendered, and must address violence against women.

The inaccessibility of housing options is a key factor preventing women from leaving abusive relationships, and in many cases contributes to their choice to return to their abusers after they have left.

We need to emphasize that homelessness is not just isolated to our province’s capital city. Truro, for example, has more homeless people per capita than Halifax at this time, according to the Truro-Colchester Affordable Housing Needs & Supply Study.

We know this reality, we live and breathe this reality, and we are working tirelessly to help others fully understand and appreciate this reality as well.

Our service providers supporting women and children in rural areas of the province tell us affordability is a major obstacle for women and children to not only leave an abusive situation, but to transition out of one of our facilities. As a result, there are families living in tents, campers or cheap motels — a temporary solution that is entirely unsustainable.

These situations are often experienced by women looking to start the next chapter of healing after leaving an abusive relationship; knowing that not only is the living situation not ideal, but that it also puts them at greater risk for the Department of Community Services to become involved if the housing isn’t “suitable” for children.

It should come as no surprise that what is typically deemed suitable for children is not aligned with the trend for affordable housing — which is offering one bedrooms or bachelors. One of our executive directors calls this irony a “dire situation, with no end in sight,” describing a scenario where previously affordable rentals are being sold because of the hot housing market, with long-term tenants being evicted and faced with homelessness. Rentals that aren’t being sold are taking advantage of the market in other ways, increasing rent for tenants who fall within the low-income bracket. The obvious result is a dramatically reduced supply of that “suitable” and safe space for children.

And while, yes, affordability is a significant barrier to renting, there is also the aspect of applications requiring rental history or employment history — and if you have none, it’s borderline impossible to proceed to the next step.

The current situation means that our work at THANS, sadly, continues to be indispensable. The necessity of our services have never been more apparent than when gaps in our social system were exposed during the last year and a half of a global pandemic.

The forced isolation due to COVID-19 brought a new urgency to our work. And while short-term funding was provided to amplify support through the pandemic, it is our hope that our province’s newly sworn in government will make a longer-term strategy a priority.

That long-term strategy must also recognize that housing is just part of the solution in addressing violence against women, and the issues women and children face in removing themselves from domestic violent situations are vast and complex.

Last August, in a letter written to the Hon. Bill Blair, federal Minister of Public Safety, providing concerns regarding the province’s handling of the Portapique tragedy investigation, Tim Houston, then leader of the official opposition, urged a “broader review of domestic violence in Nova Scotia.” Just over a year since that letter was issued, Mr. Houston has been sworn in as premier of our province, and now has the ability to not only conduct that broad review, but act on its findings.

One of which, we are sure, will be our failure to offer so many of our neighbours, our community members, the women and children living in dire situations, a safe and “suitable” roof over their heads.

Premier Houston campaigned on a platform titled, “Solutions for Nova Scotia;” we anxiously await for him to secure a solution here.

Shiva Nourpanah is provincial co-ordinator, Transition House Association of Nova Scotia.

If you are concerned that someone you know may be experiencing violence, please call or text 1-855-225-0220, toll-free and open 24/7, for safe and confidential information on how to best support them.

See also: Sorry, no kids. Adult only rentals counter to Nova Scotia Human Rights legislation

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