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Helping criminalized women reintegrate into society

Comics raise funds for the Elizabeth Fry Society's transition house

It is hard enough to find housing in Ottawa if you are employed and earning a good wage; it’s harder for people in the low-income bracket.

Social housing in Ottawa is a problem. In a city with a booming downtown core and construction everywhere, housing remains elusive for the 10,000 households on the city’s waiting list. Their chance of getting housing rests with units being vacated by other families. Until then they do what they can to keep a shelter above their heads.

Marginalized people have even more difficulty, and for women who have just been released from prison, finding somewhere to live without a steady income is almost impossible.

Bryonie Baxter is the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society in Ottawa, a non-governmental organization mandated to serve women and female youth who have been incarcerated in federal and provincial prisons or are in danger of conflicting with the law.

“Most of women’s crime is, in fact, what we call subsistence crime. It is driven by the economics of and social gaps of a system that has an entrenched bias against women,” says Baxter. “Most women that we see coming through the doors are poor, have limited education, limited job prospects and have a history of violence and abuse in their lives.”

The society’s goal is to reintegrate the women into society through support programs and services, but they also offer women temporary housing and supportive care.

The JF Norwood House is a transitional home run by the Elizabeth Fry Society that helps women reintegrate into society. While living in a supportive environment the women can access counselling services and are assisted with their educational and employment objectives.

There are two types of accommodation offered at the house, which has the capacity to house 12 women at a time. There is the option for short-term stays, specifically for women with mental needs, where the average length is between three to four weeks or until the women are stabilized. The second is a long-term option where the average residential stay is about one year.

The JF Norwood House is the only residential program for criminalized women between Kingston and Montreal. It is a safe haven for women from a wide geographical area and from different areas of the judicial system.

“We take women who are coming from federal or provincial jails, women who are on the street, who are criminalized, women coming from the drug treatment court or the mental health court,” says Baxter.

During their stay at the transition house, women receive counselling and support to help them reintegrate into society.

More housing is needed, but the problem rests with a lack of funding. The Elizabeth Fry Society receives federal funds to build programs or deliver services, but it lacks core funding to build another house.

“Lack of capital funding is a huge issue. We know that housing is a huge need in Ottawa, and indeed across the province and across the country. Yet, we are repeatedly told we can get money for a program or to deliver a service, but there is no core funding for capital projects and that’s a real key,” says Baxter. “We can’t take women off the streets and into the house and get them out of the cycle of criminality unless we have that space, and we can’t get bed space because we can’t get capital funds to purchase a building.”

With this in mind the board of directors has made the purchase and relocation of the house a priority. The society is looking at a capital campaign with a goal of $1 million to make the move a reality.

“You can’t allow yourself to be daunted by it, because the need is so great, and we witness the need every day. Basically, we just need to buckle under and raise a hundred here, a few thousand there, and do it a piece at the time,” says Baxter.

This year the society has held three fundraising events: a justice walk, a justice symposium and a golf tournament. A fourth fundraising event, Chickles, an all-women comedy evening featuring Elvira Kurt, will be held on Oct 24. A portion of the ticket sales will go toward the capital campaign.

For more, visit the Elizabeth Fry Society and Chickles.