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BEHIND THE SCENES: It's hard to rebuild your life in shelter system set up for failure: abused woman

NewmarketToday reporter Rob Paul takes us behind the scenes

In each “Behind the Scenes” segment, Village Media's Scott Sexsmith sits down with one of our local journalists to talk about the story behind the story.

These interviews are designed to help you better understand how our community-based reporters gather the information that lands in your local news feed. You can find more Behind the Scenes from reporter across Ontario here

Today's spotlight is on NewmarketToday's Rob Paul, whose story 'It's hard to rebuild your life in shelter system set up for failure: abused woman' was published on September 11, 2023.

Here's the original story if you need to catch up:

While those around her questioned why she would return to her abuser, Jane Lawson saw no other choice.

She said that getting out of an abusive relationship can be hard on many fronts, but with the way the system is set up and the lack of resources, sometimes the only option is to return.

“I keep asking myself how could I be so stupid to go back to the same person,” said Lawson, who is using a pseudonym out of fear of her ex-boyfriend and repercussions from shelters. “But when you’re in that situation, you’re the last one to see what’s going on. My children and friends kept telling me to get away from him.”

Even when attempting to hold abusers responsible, it can be easy for them to return to society and their victims to hope for change.

“My ex-boyfriend was charged and convicted, he pleaded guilty to assault,” the 57-year-old local resident said. “He did probation as part of his program, as well as drug and alcohol treatment, but once he finished it, he went back to the same person.”

Lawson would get away for a time, but usually could stay only eight weeks in a shelter, and inevitably return to her boyfriend.

“I kept going back to him because I had nowhere to go and he was there with open arms saying, ‘I love you, I miss you, and I’m so sorry,’ so you hold out hope it’ll be different,” she said. “You have to leave the shelter if you can’t find another one and just end up back in the same situation.”

Having been in shelters for abused women for 18 of the last 24 months, she said the system passes women from one shelter to the next, which mean they can't hold a steady job in one area.

“You only get about eight weeks to stay,” she said. “When you come into a shelter as an abused woman, it takes time to get accustomed to the new situation because you’re emotionally broken and physically hurt.”

Without being able to afford rent, she said women in these shelters are trying to get themselves adjusted while looking for work to theoretically save up and get their own place, but it’s “virtually impossible” to do that in eight weeks given the cost of living these days.

“After eight weeks, you’re looking for another shelter,” she said. “You can’t afford rent, you’re starting from zero trying to rebuild yourself. They just shuffle you around. I’ve been all over the place from Jackson’s Point to Markham to Mississauga to Lindsay. I’ve had many jobs, but every time I’m moved to another shelter, I’ve got to quit the job and start all over again… it’s never enough time.”

Lawson said even when you are employed and have a shelter to stay in, there’s still a constant fight with the government, shelters, and other organizations to take advantage of the available resources.

“You’ll be on a waiting list for ages,” she said. “I was in a shelter in Oshawa and signed up for family services to help me with therapy and it took a year before they called me for my first appointment. In that year, I didn’t have help or assistance. I’m on a waiting list for LOFT and I’m on a waiting list for the Special Priority Program in Durham Region, which I've been on since 2021."

Eating can be an issue in shelters, too, Lawson even asked her current shelter why there’s not more food.

“She said she only has $22.50 per person per week for groceries,” said Lawson. “I have no idea how you’re supposed to feed a person on that, let alone children. There’s 10 women and 18 children here.”

It makes it even tougher said Lawson, who is on Ontario Works, that the shelter takes the money.

“They take every single cent,” she said. “I don’t have an income and that’s why I keep trying to get a job and trying to do better. It’s a constant struggle, it doesn’t matter if you do every single thing you’re supposed to. It’s like I’m banging my head against a wall.”

Currently in a shelter in York Region, Lawson only has until Sept. 18 to stay, and she’s frantically looking for where she can go next.

“I keep calling the intake line for York Region shelters and I call several times a day to see if there are beds available at other shelters,” she said. “My job is in Newmarket, and it takes me over an hour to get there by transit and I just want to be in a shelter that’s close to Newmarket.”

Lawson said that the shelters in the Newmarket area haven’t accepted any new women and children in weeks due to lack of resources.

“I don’t know where I’m going to go,” she said. “It’s very scary and this time I’m not going back to him, so there’s a possibility I’ll end up on the street. I’m 83 pounds and wasting away and I know I can’t make it on the street.”

The gaps in the system make it borderline impossible for abused women to rebuild their lives, said Lawson.

“It’s set up for failure,” she said. “There are so many women in this situation that are trying their best.”