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Section 1: A profile of Canada’s shelters for abused women

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For more than three decades, the shelter system in Canada has provided women and their children who are fleeing abuse with a safe haven from the violence, counselling to help cope with the abuse, legal advice and countless other services.

Information on shelters in Canada is collected through the Transition Home Survey (THS), a biennial census of all residential facilities for female victims of family violence. The THS was developed as part of the Federal Family Violence Initiative and provides an overview of shelters in Canada that offer residential services to abused women and their children, as well as a profile of the people using the shelters. Since approximately 9 in 10 shelters prohibited the admission of men, information on men using these facilities is limited (see Text box 3: Shelters admitting men).

According to the THS, in 2008, there were 569 shelters across Canada providing residential services to women and children attempting to escape abusive situations. Admissions to these shelters reached a little over 101,000 (approximately 62,000 women and 38,000 children) 1  in the 12-month period from April 1, 2007 to March 31, 2008. While women and children escaping family violence did not account for all admissions to shelters serving abused women, they did represent the vast majority (see Text box 2: A brief profile of shelter residents). 2 

Using data collected through the THS, this chapter provides information on the shelter system in Canada, including the number of facilities, the types of shelter they provide and the services they offer. In addition, a brief profile of the women and children using shelters in Canada is presented. 3 

Transition homes the most common forms of refuge available to women fleeing abuse

The 569 facilities providing refuge to abused women and their children varied in the lengths-of-stay and types of services they offered to clients (see Text box 1). Some facilities, such as emergency shelters and women’s emergency centres, specialize in providing very short-term stays; others, such as second stage housing, focus on longer-term solutions. And while some shelters serve a broad population of clientele and offer few services beyond room and board (e.g., emergency shelters), others provide comprehensive programming specifically targeting the needs of abused women (e.g., transition homes, women’s emergency centres).

Text box 1: Types of residential facilities for abused women and children on the Transition Home Survey

The term ‘shelter’ is used broadly to refer to all residential facilities for abused women and their dependent children. In addition, for the purposes of the Transition Home Survey (THS), the following generic categories were developed to further define the various types of shelters. Referring to these definitions, those responding to the THS selected the facility-type that best described their shelter.

Second stage housing: Facility offering long-term (3 to 12 months) secure housing with support and referral services designed to assist women while they search for permanent housing.

Transition home or shelter: Facility offering short- or moderate-term (1 day to 11 weeks) secure housing for abused women with or without children; also referred to as first stage emergency housing.

Family resource centre: Residential services provided through an Ontario government initiative that serves a wide range of clients and provides an extensive array of information and referrals.

Women’s emergency centre or shelter: Facility offering short-term (1 to 21 days) respite for women and their dependent children.

Emergency shelter: Facility offering short-term (1 to 3 days) respite for a wide population range, not exclusively abused women. Some facilities may provide accommodation for men as well as women. This type of facility may accommodate residents who are not associated with family abuse but are without a home due to an emergency situation (e.g., eviction for non-payment of rent). Other than room and board services, these shelters offer few additional client services.

Safe home network: Network of private homes in rural or remote areas where there is no full-fledged operating shelter. It offers subsidiary very short term (1 to 3 days) emergency housing.

Other: Includes all other residential facilities offering services to abused women with or without children, not otherwise classified. This category includes Rural Family Violence Prevention Centres in Alberta, Interim Housing in Manitoba and other types of emergency shelters, such as YWCAs. These services may not be exclusive to abused women.

Transition homes and emergency-type facilities have been, and continue to be, the most common types of shelters available to abused women in Canada (Chart 1.1). In 2008, transition homes, which provide short- to moderate-term housing, made up nearly half (47%) of all shelters in Canada. Emergency-type facilities, such as general emergency shelters and women’s emergency centres, accounted for more than one-quarter (26%) of sheltering facilities in 2008.

The use of emergency-type shelters by abused women has grown over time, while admissions to transition homes, as a share of all shelter admissions, have decreased. A sample of 354 shelters that have participated in five consecutive cycles of the THS showed that in 2000, admissions to transition homes represented 65% of admissions to all types of shelters, but decreased to 53% in 2008. At the same time, admissions to emergency-type facilities increased from 26% in 2000 to 40% in 2008.

The number and types of facilities vary across the country

In 2008, about 70% of the shelters in Canada were located in 3 provinces, Ontario (28%), Quebec (22%) and British Columbia (19%). However, if population differences between the provinces are taken into consideration, Prince Edward Island (14 per 100,000 married, common-law and separated women) had the greatest number of shelters per capita, followed by New Brunswick (12), Newfoundland and Labrador (11) and Manitoba (11). Nationally, there were about 7 shelters for every 100,000 married, common-law and separated women (Table 1.1). 4 

The distribution of the various types of sheltering facilities differs by province and territory. Transition homes were most prevalent in Quebec, accounting for 80% of shelters in that province, followed by Nova Scotia (69%) (Table 1.2). In contrast, transition houses were least common in Alberta (8%) and Manitoba (10%). Emergency-type facilities, including women's emergency centres and general emergency shelters, were most common in the Prairies, the territories and in Ontario (Table 1.2). Alberta, in particular, had the highest proportion of women's emergency centres, which constituted nearly two-thirds of the shelters for abused women in that province. While second stage housing represented about one-fifth of the shelters for abused women in a majority of provinces and Yukon, most facilities in Prince Edward Island (80%) were second stage shelters. Northwest Territories and Nunavut (0%) as well as Quebec (10%) had the lowest prevalence of second stage housing.

Facilities offering life skills training to their residents on the rise

As in past years, in addition to housing, many shelters offered a wide range of in-house programs and services to those staying in their facilities in 2008. Shelters provided services aimed at assisting women in dealing with complex issues associated with leaving an abusive situation and overcoming their victimization. The services most commonly offered were transportation and accompaniment (i.e., to court, medical appointments), individual short-term counselling, advocacy, safety or protection planning and housing referral—almost 9 in 10 shelters provided each of these services to their women residents (Table 1.3).

Many shelters offer services to assist residents further develop life skills. The THS found that life-skills training was offered by 76% of shelters in 2008, an 8% increase over 2002. 5  This represented the largest increase among services provided to women residents during this time period. 6 

Short-term counselling more likely to be offered by transition homes than by other types of shelters

The types of services and programs available vary based on the type of facility. For instance, the services most frequently offered to residents of transition homes were safety or protection planning, transportation and accompaniment, as well as individual short-term counselling (Table 1.4). Furthermore, individual short-term counselling and transportation were more likely to be offered by transition homes than by almost any other type of shelter.

Second stage housing facilities most often provided advocacy and housing referral services to residents. However, these facilities, which are typically oriented towards helping women develop permanent solutions to abusive situations, were generally more likely to provide life skills and long-term counselling services than other types of facilities (Table 1.4).

Women’s emergency centres were most likely to offer advocacy and safety or protection planning, and, along with general emergency shelters, provided advocacy as well as specialized services for women with disabilities, visible minorities and lesbian women more often than other types of shelters (Table 1.4).

About three-quarters of shelters offered services or programming for children

Results from the 2008 THS indicate that on April 16, 2008, 44% of residents in shelters for abused women were children (see Text box 2). As most mothers coming to shelters to escape abuse bring their children with them (70%), about three-quarters of shelters offered some type of service or programming for children (Table 1.5). Outdoor and indoor recreational facilities for children were the most prevalent types of children’s services available, each offered by about three-quarters of shelters. Services to help children cope with family violence, such as group and individual counselling, as well as specialized programming for child witnesses and victims of abuse, were also provided by more than half of shelters.

Text box 2: A brief profile of shelter residents

Results from the 2008 Transition Home Survey (THS) indicate that admissions of women and children to the 569 shelters across Canada exceeded 101,000 during the 12-month period from April 1, 2007 to March 31, 2008. In addition to these annual figures, the THS provides a snapshot of the women and children using shelters by collecting information on selected characteristics of residents on a particular day, which in 2008 was April 16th. This information can then be used to build a profile of women and children staying in shelters on that snapshot day. (For more detailed information on residents in shelters for abused women, see “Residents of Canada’s shelters for abused women, 2008” by Julie Sauvé and Mike Burns in Juristat Vol. 29, no. 2, May 2009.)

More than three-quarters of women in shelters were fleeing abuse

Across Canada, approximately 4,300 women and their 3,400 dependent children resided in shelters on April 16, 2008. 7  While about one-quarter of the women were in shelters for reasons such as housing or addiction problems, 8  three-quarters (3,222) were there to escape an abusive situation (Table 1.6). Frequently, the women staying in shelters due to abuse were 25 to 34 years of age (36%), with nearly 8 in 10 under the age of 45.

Psychological and physical abuse by a spouse or common-law partner were the main reasons women went to shelters

Similar to previous years, the 2008 THS indicates that about two-thirds (65%) of all women in shelters on April 16, 2008 (regardless of whether or not escaping abuse was the primary reason for their stay) were there to escape psychological abuse, while more than half had fled physical violence (55%).

The vast majority of women in shelters were seeking refuge from abuse by a current spouse or common-law partner (64%), or a former spouse or partner (12%) (Table 1.6). The rate of women in shelters escaping an abusive spouse or partner (either current or former) on April 16, 2008 was 31 per 100,000 population. 9 

About one-quarter of abused women residing in shelters on snapshot day had reported their most recent incident of violence to the police. 10 

Children accompanied about 70% of mothers to shelters

Over 2,200 women in shelters to escape abuse on April 16, 2008 had children (Table 1.6). About 70% of these women brought their dependent children with them to the shelter. 11  Of the nearly 2,900 children accompanying mothers fleeing abuse to shelters, more than two-thirds (69%) were under the age of 10. Women accompanied by their children were staying primarily in transition homes (39%) and second stage housing (31%).

Providing support to former residents and non-residents a significant part of day-to-day shelter operations

Many shelters extend their resources to those who are not staying in the facility by offering services to former residents as well as those who have not stayed in the shelter previously. Shelters offer assistance to ex- and non-residents in need of support in order to deal with a variety of situations including threats of abuse, safe housing, employment and legal assistance.

In 2008, the services most frequently provided to former and non-residents included crisis telephone lines, safety or protection planning, individual short-term counselling and advocacy, each offered by about two-thirds of facilities (Table 1.3).

In general, the services frequently provided to residents such as transportation and accompaniment, housing referral, parenting skills training and life-skills training were much less likely to be offered to those not staying in the shelter. Still, some services such as crisis telephone lines, individual long-term counselling and family counselling programs were offered to current residents, former residents and non-residents by a similar number of shelters (Table 1.3). Overall, transition homes were more likely than other shelter-types to provide services to people not staying in their facilities (Table 1.4).

Shelters also help provide items such as clothing and furniture

Some women may lack the basic necessities to set-up a new home once they depart from the shelter. Many facilities help residents as they move on by providing items such as clothing (79%) and furniture (55%), as well as food bank services (34%). A notable number of shelters also provided these services to former residents and non-residents (Chart 1.2).

While shelters offered a wide variety of services to both current and former residents as well as non-residents, very few shelters extended their resources to provide in-house services to the partners of residents, with 5% offering treatment or counselling for abusive partners. However, about one-third of shelters did refer these partners to an external agency for assistance.

Text box 3: Shelters admitting men

Throughout 2008, shelters responding to the Transition Home Survey (THS) admitted a total of 736 men. More than half of these admissions were in New Brunswick, while another 43% were in Ontario. About 9% of men came to the shelters seeking refuge from spousal abuse, while the remainder were admitted for reasons other than abuse, such as housing-related issues.

While approximately 9 in 10 shelters prohibited the admission of men, about 5% of shelters for abused women did permit men to be admitted; 4% had no such policies in place.

Of the 5% of facilities or 29 shelters allowing adult male residents, transition homes constituted the largest number (24%) followed by other shelter types 12  (21%), second stage housing (17%) and emergency shelters (17%).

Shelters received over one-hundred requests from non-residents per month

Rather than refuge, people may seek other types of assistance from shelters. Responding to these requests and providing outreach assistance was a part of the day-to-day operations of many shelters. Over a 12-month period (i.e., April 1, 2007 to March 31, 2008) shelters committed an estimated total of 28,770 hours to outreach work. In particular, Quebec, the province with the second largest number of shelters, devoted more than 11,600 hours in total or an average of 92 hours per shelter to outreach work, the most of any province in Canada. With an average of 54 hours per shelter, Ontario had the second highest number of annual outreach hours per shelter.

In a typical month, shelters received a total of over 62,000 inquiries—approximately 110 inquiries per shelter, per month, up 16% over 2006. On April 16, 2008, shelters received more than 4,700 inquiries and requests for assistance from non-residents. More than two-thirds of these inquiries were for non-housing related issues such as crisis and emotional support, medical assistance or general information.

Fewer services offered by village and rural-area shelters

Women living in small villages and rural areas seeking to escape spousal violence may have specific needs due to their location. For example, the geographic isolation of many villages and rural settings may mean limited access to social supports such as family and friends. Similarly, small or remote communities may offer little in the way of resources such as shelters, child care and affordable housing (Purdon, 2004; Lunn, 2001; Jiwani, Kachuk and Moore, 1998).

According to the THS, there were very few shelters for abused women exclusively serving villages and rural populations (i.e., under 1,000 people), with most shelters serving suburban and urban populations or a combination of suburban/urban and village/rural populations. 13  In 2008, 57% of all shelters served suburban and urban areas exclusively; 39% served an urban-rural mix and 4% served either a village/rural area exclusively or served a village/rural area as well as a reserve. Nearly half of all suburban/urban-area shelters were transition homes, while emergency-type facilities were the most common kind of shelter found in villages and rural locations (Table 1.7).

There were a number of similarities between the 324 suburban/urban-area shelters and the 24 shelters that served villages and rural populations exclusively. 14  For example, like suburban/urban-area shelters, individual short-term counselling, advocacy, safety or protection planning, and housing referrals were among the in-house services most commonly offered by village/rural-area facilities. Overall, the assortment of programs and services available to current, former and non- residents in suburban/urban-area facilities was more extensive compared to village and rural-area shelters (Table 1.8).

However, village/rural-area facilities (67%) were more likely than suburban/urban-area shelters (53%) to provide residents with culturally sensitive services for Aboriginal women; and individual long-term counselling was found more frequently among village/rural-area shelters (50%) compared to facilities that only served suburban and urban populations (38%). Village and rural-area shelters were also more likely than suburban/urban-area facilities to provide non-residents with certain services including advocacy, individual short-term counselling, long-term counselling, housing referrals and mental health services (Table 1.8).

Text box 4: Repeat stays in shelters

Whether an abused woman has been to a shelter once or on multiple occasions can have an impact on the types of services she will require. One-quarter of women in shelters on April 16, 2008 had stayed in the facility on at least one prior occasion, down from 38% on the previous Transition Home Survey in 2006. Re-admissions to shelters occurred most often in emergency-type facilities (Chart 1.3).

In 2008, nearly three-quarters of re-admissions to shelters occurred within a year. Among returning residents, the largest proportion (32%) had been to the shelter on one prior occasion in the last year, 23% had two to four previous stays and 13% had been there on five or more occasions. For the remainder of repeat clients, it had been more than a year since their previous stay (27%) or it was unknown how many times they had stayed in the facility in the last year (5%).

Shelters employed measures to make facilities more accessible

Shelters serve abused women from diverse cultural, ethnic and racial backgrounds. Similar to previous years, about 6 shelters in 10 offered culturally sensitive services for ethno-cultural and visible minority women, including access to language interpreters, resource materials in various languages and counsellors familiar with immigration issues and parenting styles in different cultures. As well, a number of facilities were able to deliver services in a variety of languages, in addition to English and French, such as Spanish (28%), Cree (13%), Punjabi (12%), Arabic (11%) and German (10%), to name a few (Table 1.9).

People with disabilities or those who experience limitations to their daily activities due to a physical or mental condition were 2 to 3 times more likely to be victims of the most severe forms of spousal violence, according to results from the 2004 General Social Survey on victimization (Perreault, 2009). Findings from the 2008 THS indicate that about 10% of women residing in shelters on April 16, 2008 had some form of disability. 15 

In 2008, three-quarters of shelters reported having at least one building entrance that was wheelchair accessible and two-thirds of shelters had wheelchair-accessible bedrooms and bathrooms. In addition, about one-quarter (22%) of shelters provided TTY/TDD equipment (i.e., specially equipped telephones) for people who are hearing impaired; 17% provided sign language or interpretation services, 17% provided large print reading materials to people who are visually impaired and 5% provided Braille reading materials.

Sometimes shelters unable to meet the demand for services

More than half (58%) of shelters responding to the THS in 2008 indicated the need for additional or improved services to meet the needs of their clients. In particular, the need for extra or enhanced child care services (17%); outreach services, public education and prevention programs (15%); affordable housing and housing resources (14%); specialized services for specific populations (e.g., culturally sensitive services) (8%); second stage housing (7%); and counselling (7%) were mentioned most often by shelters.

When shelters are full, they may be unable to provide services to abused women. While women seeking refuge may not be admitted to shelters for many reasons, including alcohol, drug or mental health issues, the most common reason given by shelters for turning people away is lack of space. On April 16, 2008, more than 1 shelter in 5 had to turn away women and children seeking refuge. On that day, 117 facilities had to turn away a total of 299 women and 148 children—more than three-quarters of these shelters indicated they had to refer people seeking shelter elsewhere because the facility was full.

Shelters spent approximately $18.7 million on improvements to facilities

Shelters spent an estimated $18.7 million on improvements and repairs to their facilities in the 12-month period preceding the 2008 THS. Two-thirds of shelters reported that they had made some repairs to their facility over the previous year. Of these repairs, 43% were classified as major or essential repairs, necessary for ensuring that the facility meets municipal standards. Another 30% of repairs were structural improvements, which were significant but not necessary for safety reasons or meeting government standards (e.g., making rooms wheelchair accessible, adding ramps, adding an outside play area for children or adding a new security system).

The costs of these renovations were covered through a variety of means including: private donations (39%), provincial or territorial funding (38%), fundraising efforts (28%) and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s (CMHC) Shelter Enhancement Program 16  (22%).

Financial information on shelters’ expenses and revenues is not available from the 2008 THS. This information is collected on every second cycle of the THS and was last collected in 2006. That year, shelters reported total estimated revenues of $333 million for the 12-month period ending March 31, 2006. These monies came largely from provincial ministries (71%), but other government sources, as well as fundraising dollars and donations also contributed to shelter revenues. Total annual expenditures for the year ending March 31, 2006 were estimated at $317 million with 70% of shelter expenditures going to salary costs. While just over half (58%) of shelters reported a net gain, 42% had expenditures that either exceeded or equalled their revenues.


Shelters for abused women provide refuge and services to women and children fleeing family violence. In 2008, the 569 shelters serving abused women across Canada recorded admissions of more than 101,000 women and children. Similar to previous years, almost half of shelters were transition homes facilities providing short- to moderate-term housing, while about one-quarter were facilities offering short-term, emergency refuge.

Canada’s shelters for abused women provide a range of services to women staying in their facilities such as transportation, counselling, advocacy and housing referral; life skills training is a growing service. In addition, services and programming for residents’ children, as well as continued support for former residents and services extended to the general public are all part of the work undertaken by shelters.

Shelters serve diverse populations and this reality is reflected in the wide range of services provided by many facilities. However, the availability of services and programming can vary depending on the type of facility and its location.