Fewer beds available for women than men in Winnipeg homeless shelters

Women experiencing homelessness in Winnipeg have fewer options than men when it comes to accessing emergency shelter.

While shelters can be flexible to get more people in, a CBC tally suggests there are nearly three times more emergency beds for men experiencing homelessness than for women. Across Canada, a federal study found only 13 per cent of shelter beds were dedicated to women.

While most mid-to-large Canadian cities have at least one emergency overnight shelter just for women, Winnipeg does not.

Advocates say that leaves many women looking for alternatives to staying in a co-ed shelter, especially if they’ve previously experienced violence and abuse in group settings.

Falin Johnston had been staying with friends and studying social work when chronic health issues changed her course.

“I ended up in the hospital,” said the young woman.

“Then because of mental health reasons, I was homeless.”

Dedicated floor, co-ed spaces

Johnston landed a space at the Salvation Army’s Centre of Hope, the biggest emergency shelter in Winnipeg. She says she was nervous at first, because of some of the people who hang out nearby.

“I’m just super thankful that I’m on this floor, where it’s only women,” Johnston said. “It makes me feel really safe.”

Centre of Hope Winnipeg Executive Director Mark Stewart said the Salvation Army shelter prioritizes women's safety by putting them on a separate, secure floor with private, locked rooms.
Centre of Hope Winnipeg Executive Director Mark Stewart said the Salvation Army shelter prioritizes women’s safety by putting them on a separate, secure floor with private, locked rooms. (Emily Brass/CBC)

Centre of Hope Winnipeg’s Executive Director Mark Stewart said any woman seeking an immediate place to stay is placed in a private, locked room. Access to the shelter is monitored 24/7, with security cameras in every part of the building, Stewart said.

But like all emergency homeless shelters in Manitoba, the centre also takes in men. Sleeping quarters are separated by locked doors, but some common areas, like the dining hall, are co-ed.

“I can’t imagine what it would feel like for a woman to walk into a big open space like that,” said Stewart. “It’s scary, and I think we just do our best to make it a safe space.”

Siloam Mission, Main Street Project and N’dinawemak also offer secure, female-only sleeping spaces, while common areas are shared by women and men.

Several shelters told CBC News they’ve been stepping up security following recent news that an alleged serial killer may have met women in these co-ed spaces.

Siloam Mission recently built an addition onto its men’s shelter to create a separate space for women to sleep, but says Winnipeg needs more emergency accommodations for female, non-binary and two-spirit people.

“A big challenge is that our 26 beds in our women’s designated shelter are always full,” CEO Tessa Blaikie Whitecloud said. “So it is also about having enough resources to meet the need, and that need, specifically for women, is those separate spaces so that there’s added safety.”

Women may avoid shelters

“The shelter system has been built around this model of largely single men,” said Kaitlin Schwann, executive director for Women’s National Housing and Homelessness Network, and a senior researcher at the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.

She says separating women’s beds from men staying in the same shelters isn’t enough.

“Many, many women will avoid co-ed shelters because of experiences of violence or harassment within them,” said Schwann. 

Homelessness researcher Kaitlin Schwann said many women will avoid staying in co-ed facilities, sometimes exhausting every possible housing option from couch surfing to sleeping in vehicles before checking into a shelter.
Homelessness researcher Kaitlin Schwann said many women will avoid staying in co-ed facilities, sometimes exhausting every possible housing option from couch surfing to sleeping in vehicles before checking into a shelter. (Kaitlin Schwann/Zoom)

“So we have a really significant gap between what kind of investments we’re making in shelter beds for women compared to men,” she said, adding the gap is even greater when it comes to culturally appropriate shelter for particular populations, such as Indigenous, Muslim and newcomer women.

Schwann says women are also more likely to experience “hidden homelessness,” seeing shelters as a last resort.

“That can mean trading sex for housing. It can mean couch surfing, sleeping in your car, sleeping at your workplace — situations where you aren’t visible on the street,” said Schwann. 

“You’re in this highly precarious situation,” she said. “There’s certainly a number of reasons that this happens much more in the lives of women, but a main reason is the lack of shelter space.”

Unlike Winnipeg, Edmonton has two same-day homeless shelters for women, including the Women’s Emergency Accommodation Centre (WEAC). 

CEO Barb Spencer said a female-only space can be helpful for women trying to rebuild their lives.

When an individual feels a sense of threat in the space, “that has an ongoing impact on the wellness of that individual, from both the mental health and physical standpoint,” said Spencer.

“There’s this whole element of marginalization and vulnerability that gets created around traumatized women,” she said. “When we can have an environment where there’s less chaos and less external stress […] that starts to eliminate some of that chaos in their lives.”

Women's Emergency Accommodation Centre CEO Barb Spencer said the shelter in Edmonton offers a safe, unchaotic space to help women escape homelessness and rebuild their lives.
Women’s Emergency Accommodation Centre CEO Barb Spencer said the shelter in Edmonton offers a safe, unchaotic space to help women escape homelessness and rebuild their lives. (Barb Spencer/Zoom)

Back at the Centre of Hope, Johnston warns becoming homeless can happen quickly.

“You’re only a couple of bad choices — in a crappy situation — away from being where I am right now.”

Johnston is making plans to move into her own home soon, and go back to school.

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