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Williams passes time while waiting to sign up for a bed for the night.
Katy Anderson/the Gauntlet

Gender and homelessness

Local author writes a new book chronicling the lives of homeless women across Canada

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At a time when Calgary is experiencing record numbers in homelessness, many Calgarians are concerned that we need to deal with men and women's homelessness issues separately.

A book reading of All Our Sisters, a story of homeless women across Canada by Susan Scott, took place at the University Bookstore on Mon., May 28.

Scott had written a previous book called No Fixed Address, which dealt with homelessness as a whole, and decided to take a closer look at the issues facing homeless women in particular.

Scott collected stories from women across Canada and disguised herself as a prostitute while frequenting shelters and the streets for insights into homeless women's lives.

"There is a difference between homelessness and houselessness," said Scott. "[In] a house, you maybe do have four walls and a ºroof, but you may not be safe there; you may be living with a dangerous partner, it may be an unsafe building, you may be living with far too many people or you may not have enough money coming into sustain the rent on that place. School supplies could spell the difference between being housed and not being housed."

Scott said relationships between men and women are often based on finances, as a woman often stays at home and has no money set aside in case of an emergency.

"Often a lease is in a man's name," said Scott. "So if they split up it's the man who stays and the women and children who leave."

On her travels Scott met a lot of women who had children that were apprehended by social services because they couldn't provide for the child's housing and nutritional needs.

"This type of living breaks up families," said Brenda Williams, a women currently living on the streets. "When you go somewhere. You can't stay together. They separate you."

Williams has been living on the streets for a month after she couldn't afford her rent increases with the disability checks she was receiving from the government. She is unable to work because she is awaiting surgery on both knees and is blind in one eye.

"When I was standing in line [at a drop-in centre] someone cut me with an exacto-knife and I had to get two stitches," said Williams. "I don't feel safe at drop-in centres."

Williams had used the Mustard Seed for shelter but says she is too scared to go there now after having her belongings stolen and feeling unsafe going out for a smoke at night. Currently, Williams is relying on Inn from the Cold, an agency that connects homeless families and individuals with churches in which they are able to stay for a night.

"I've never been to an all-women's centre," said Williams. "I went to every one of them and they said they never have any room. One of them said I had too many medical problems for them to take care of me. [The system] is set up for men. Calgary housing has to do more. Especially for families and women."

Debbie Mameak, another user of Inn from the Cold, disagreed.

"I don't really see too much difference, the men are suffering too," said Mameak.

Scott said the difference is in how the institutions are set up, pointing out that most shelters were set up 30 or 40 years ago with men in mind.

"The services are a range for men's needs and they haven't quite caught on that women's needs can be quite different," she said.

Scott said she was excited that the Salvation Army is looking into getting a different residence for women.

"When you have a population of--in our shelter we have 300 men and only 20 women--how do you effectively break the cycle if they're always dealing with the come-ons from men?" said Sheila McKillop, the Salvation Army's manager of women's residential services. "If they're prostitutes and they're going downstairs, they could make that $20 from some guy that's trying to solicit them."

McKillop said a separate residence for women would provide an atmosphere more conducive for women to change their behaviour.

"Almost 95 per cent of the women coming in here have experienced some kind of abuse, although it may not be a partner abuse," she said. "What we're dealing with [are] women that are in the sex trade."

McKillop explained that many of the issues women deal with are of a sexual nature, and said that other women her organization serves include addicts of some sort, or women that deal with mental health issues.

Scott talked about the need to create long-term solutions for homelessness rather than band-aids such as giving out soup or packing backpacks around Christmas time.

"I think a social housing policy and maybe enshrining the right to housing in our constitution," said Scott. "Certainly the UN charter of human rights includes it."

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