The Community Foundation’s 2016 Vital Signs report found that rates of domestic violence in Alberta are typically higher than the national average. On any one day in 2016, 234 emergency shelters turned away 305 women and children in crisis due to a lack of available space. In rural communities, the proximity to available services makes the situation even more dire than in an urban centre. Thankfully, organizations like Rowan House Society are working to minimize that inequality, using innovative methods to help women and children in crisis—both in the shelter setting, and in the community.
Rowan House Executive Director Sherrie Botten says that on top of the growing numbers of families requiring their services in recent years, another variable was also trending upward: “women in crisis were staying at facilities longer, so we knew we had to do something,” she says. The program, Transitional Housing for Woman Leaving Domestic Abuse, addresses both issues. The Transitional Housing program supports victims of domestic abuse (most often—but not exclusively—women and children) who are ending their time in the emergency shelter and transitioning back into the community. It enables Rowan House to continue offering support during a difficult time by creating a sort of “next step” for people who are starting a new phase of their lives.
Botten explains that the program is a way to increase Rowan House’s capacity to help without having to increase the physical capacity of the shelter itself. Rowan House began to conduct research within the communities it serves to determine what it could do to address the issues. The research showed that second-stage shelters—similar to apartment-style living, but maintaining high levels of security—existed in places like Calgary, Edmonton, and even Medicine Hat, “but there was nothing in rural Alberta,” says Botten.
Ultimately, Rowan House decided to test two methods, both adapting the second-stage shelter model for smaller communities. A successful application to the Community Foundation’s Henry S. Varley Fund for Rural Life enabled Rowan House to start a pilot project. With a $15,000 grant launching the program, the organization was able to move forward with plans for four transitional housing units in rural communities throughout its catchment area, including in Claresholm. These four were a combination of both scattered site units, where Rowan House worked with landlords and property owners in the community to secure appropriate housing, and community host homes, where members of the public offered rooms in their homes to those leaving the shelter.
Botten describes the Transitional Housing program as a strategy that helps women in crisis meet the challenges they face when they are ready to leave the shelter. “There are many barriers,” she explains. “First of all, you’re homeless when you’re in an emergency shelter. When these women leave, they’re not able for the most part to go back to their homes. So there are barriers right there in terms of housing, affordability, and safety. Most of the women leaving emergency shelters are still at a high safety risk.” Many of them may be ill equipped for life on their own. “It happens quite often in domestic violence where a woman might not have any understanding of paying bills, or what it means to have a rental agreement,” says Botten. The support of a member of the community, she adds, offers them stability and emotional support, helping them to adapt to their newfound independence.
In the spring of 2018, the application for phase two of the Transitional Housing project earned a second infusion from the Rural Life Fund, this time for $25,000. This grant will help Rowan House maximize the attention that the program has garnered. “There has already been lots of interest, from people in the community, other agencies and service providers, and also from donors,” says Botten. Now that they have shown that the model is viable, Botten and her colleagues look to grow the program. One of the purposes of their second round of funding is to create more awareness for the program, attract and train more community hosts, and hire someone to work with families in transition full-time. The Community Foundation’s grant for the Transitional Housing program helps Rowan House respond to the increased demand on their services in a way that spreads compassion throughout the community. “We’re more than just a shelter that provides emergency housing support,” says Botten. “Rowan House supports families in their transition from domestic violence to safety.”