Timely report offers under-reported glimpse into the lives of homeless women

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Charlotte Nolin gave a poignant speech on behalf of the homeless at launch of Finding Her Home, a gender-based analysis of the homelessness crisis in Winnipeg at Circle of Life Thunderbird House Thursday on International Women’s Day.

International Women’s Day is a celebration. It’s also a day to take action.

The theme of Wednesday’s IWD was Be Bold for Change, which is fitting coming just weeks after the Women’s March on Washington, an international protest for the history books. The complex, intersecting issues we tend to file under ‘women’s issues’ are numerous, and many fights for change rage on. We’re still fighting for access to reproductive care and affordable child care. We’re still fighting for fair pay at work, while doing most of the unpaid labour at home. We’re still trying to end rape culture and gender-based violence. We’re still pushing for representation — in boardrooms, in government, in media. We’re still pushing for government policy that ensures equality for all women, not just some women.

At the legislature, the Province of Manitoba celebrated International Women’s Day with a half-hour event dedicated to honouring the advances of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) while acknowledging the chronic under-representation of women in those fields as well as the barriers to both recruiting and retention. Save for a couple of rousing speeches from Nusraat Masood, administrator of the University of Manitoba’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program, and Jeannette Montufar, a civil engineer and the new chairwoman of the Manitoba Women’s Advisory Council, the event was light on bold policy announcements.

Of course, STEM is not the only area in which women are being left behind.

Over at Circle of Life Thunderbird House, an International Women’s Day gathering of another kind took place. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives rolled out its State of the Inner City report. The 47-page report, titled Finding Her Home, is a gender-based analysis of homelessness in Winnipeg and one of the only in-depth studies of women’s experiences with homelessness in the country.

Women experiencing homelessness are often rendered invisible. Overwhelmingly, they are indigenous. Nearly 84 per cent of the female respondents in the 2015 Winnipeg Street Census identify as indigenous. The report includes perspectives and insights from 30 different women. Many women experience what’s called hidden homelessness, which means they’re staying on someone’s couch, for example, as opposed to absolute homelessness, which means they are staying at a shelter or sleeping on the street. Many are afraid to go to shelters for fear of violence; others are afraid to engage with government agencies for fear their children might be taken away.

A host of actionable recommendations are outlined in the report, from affordable housing and income security to revising the definitions of homelessness to better co-ordination of government services to the establishment of women- and indigenous-led services and spaces.

Charlotte is one of the women who shared her lived experience at Thunderbird House. She’s currently living in transitional housing after relapsing into a drug addiction. Last year, she was assaulted.

“When the doctors asked me what had happened, I couldn’t tell them,” she said. “I didn’t remember because of drugs that were given to me. I found out two weeks later, when I was in detox, that there was a group of men who decided they could do what they wanted with me.”

Charlotte has been clean for nine months and works with an organization that helps street-entrenched women who live with addictions.

“On a daily basis, we see these women out there. When we do outreach work, we see them. All we can do is try to help them in whatever way we can,” she said. “The thing you say to all of them is, ‘Stay safe, and stay warm.'”

As she spoke of her experiences of violence and discrimination she faces as a trans woman, as well as the experiences of women she’s known who have had to stay in “crack shacks” or with a dealer or john because it seemed safer than the alternative, a few people in the audience wiped away tears. “I had to sleep at 72 Martha St. (the Salvation Army emergency shelter) for one night, and I think all of our politicians should have to sleep there for one night so they can understand,” she said, to a rumble of applause.

There is room under the banner of International Women’s Day to discuss both the lack of representation of women in STEM and the ways in which homelessness affects women — not to mention all the other issues that desperately deserve our attention, not just on International Women’s Day but every day. Keep having those conversations so they don’t fade into the background. Call your elected officials to ask them what they’re doing to help make this province equal. Be bold, so others may be bold, too.

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @JenZoratti

Read more by Jen Zoratti.

Retrieved from: http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/columnists/iwd-415732754.html

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