4 min

Nellie’s in need

Historic women's shelter seeks new space

Nellie’s is coming out – about the fact that it needs cash.
The Toronto women’s shelter is beginning the process of building a new house. The historical building that is currently home to Nellie’s is more than 100 years old. With the wear and tear of constant use and a full complement of residents, the building is breaking down. Organizers say that because the shelter building is designated a Toronto heritage property – meaning no substantial renovations can be made – they are forced to seek a new space.
Anna von Frances is Xtra’s Xposed columnist and the creator of GirlFight, a fundraising event that raised money for Nellie’s anti-violence programming earlier this year. “It’s beautiful, but it’s leaking, and the floors are screwed up… They need a new home,” she says.
According to the organization’s 2009/10 annual report, “the possibility exists every year that we may end a year with a deficit because the gap between the costs of providing services and the funding received to maintain the services is ever-widening.”
Nellie’s houses as many women as possible, but that leaves many families without privacy: one room contains six beds.
In 2010, the report says, major repairs to the building’s infrastructure were both costly and unavoidable. This is one of the factors leading the shelter to seek out new space.
Thirty-eight years ago, when Nellie’s opened, the shelter had 16 beds. Now it has 36 in the same space. “Our founders would never have imagined that 40 years later Nellie’s would still be there and busier than ever,” says Wendy Sung-Aad, Nellie’s development manager. “It’s kid of sad, actually. We’ve come such a long way in that time, but… you can see how far we still have to go.”
While Nellie’s is the largest women’s shelter in the city, offering support to both cis and trans women, it has only 36 beds, including three cribs. “The shelter is constantly at capacity, almost 98, 99 percent all the time,” she says. “I don’t think we’re the only ones in this situation.”
A potential root of the problem is that Nellie’s beds are not all funded at the same rates. Only 26 of Nellie’s beds are funded by Ontario’s Community Services Violence Against Women grants, which, in 2009/10, offered just under $1 million, according to the Ministry of Community and Social Services. Sung says this breaks down to an approximate per diem of $80 per bed. The other 10 beds are funded by Toronto’s City Homelessness Initiative, whose funding breaks down to only approximately $60 per bed, Sung-Aad says.
But for Sung-Aad, the distinction between women fleeing domestic violence and women facing homelessness is often arbitrary. “The definition of violence is something as a society we have to look at,” she says. “Most homeless women have suffered violence in their lives that causes them to be chronically homeless… that’s what we see in the work that we do.”
Sung-Aad also points out that homeless women who use the shelter system often have more complex needs than women facing domestic violence, including drug addiction and mental health issues, despite the discrepancy in funding. “Our services are so in demand. I wish people would understand that more,” she says.
In comparison, the average cost of maintaining a prisoner in a medium-security federal jail, according to Corrections Canada, is approximately $98,219 yearly, or $269 per day.
Mary Byberg sits on Nellie’s fundraising council and was on its board of directors for six years, after rebuilding her life and leaving an abusive relationship. “It took me several years and several times of leaving before I finally left for the last time,” she says. “I was helped tremendously by a women’s shelter when I decided to leave… and just thought I would like to give back to the movement that had helped me so much.”
In 1992, she and her children fled her husband and sought refuge in the Women and Children’s Crisis Centre in Barrie. 
“The shelter I had accessed had actually just been built. I had moved from an old home, similar to the one where Nellie’s is currently, to a brand new facility. It had lots of space, modern amenities, private rooms… I had a room for myself and my kids. That felt like a safe place for me and my girls,” she says. “I experienced employment support, housing support, support for myself, support for my kids… if those things aren’t present, it’s a very daunting concept to think, How am I going to put these pieces back together again?”
The support Byberg received in the ’90s, she says, is becoming harder to offer as costs of providing services skyrocket. She says fundraising will be crucial if a new building is to be made. “We really need the community’s support,” she says.
While Byberg hopes to find government contributions, she says current government funding is spent mainly on providing basic services and keeping the shelter running. “What we hope is that at some point there might be money for them to kick in,” she says. “I don’t think the city would have that kind of money, but potentially, because women’s shelters do fall under the jurisdiction of…Community and Social Services, some of it might come from there.
“But an awful lot of it is going to have to come from our own resources.”
Von Frances says that while she enjoys fundraising for the shelter, she also wants to see some structural change in the shelter system.
“It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if the biggest [women’s] shelter in Toronto is [36 beds], where the hell are all the women?” she asks. “A lot of women are scared to be in [co-ed shelters]… Across the board, how can there be less beds for women than there are for men?”
“You just have to walk into a shelter to see that it’s underfunded,” Von Frances says. “They just don’t stack up.”