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Saturday, 31 December 2011

Calgary women's shelters fill up in unusual holiday spike

 Some of the women’s shelters in Calgary say they are nearly at capacity this holiday season - an unusual occurrence this time of year.


The YWCA Sheriff King House, which shelters victims of domestic violence, is housing more than triple the number of women and young children compared to the same period last year. Numbers are also up at the agency’s Mary Dover homeless shelter.


The Christmas season is a particularly tough time to leave home, and many shelters traditionally have lower numbers during the holidays, a shelter spokeswoman said.


The climbing number of domestic violence victims seeking helps shows they’re making the difficult choice to forgo a Christmas at home over fears for their own safety, said Jean Dunbar, YWCA of Calgary’s director of family violence prevention.


“It’s a really tough decision to make at this time of the year. Is it bad enough to leave? Because you’re leaving with nothing. Or can you just hang in there, get through and things will calm down.


“This year, people are making different decisions.”


The Sheriff King shelter, which took in 10 people at this time last year, saw a sudden spike Friday to 34, edging close to its 42-person capacity. The YWCA Mary Dover housed 98 people, compared to 72 last year.


The shelters have enough space — for now.


The week following Christmas, however, is generally when numbers begin to climb. It’s a worrisome scenario considering the already peak numbers.


“In my 18 years of working here, I’ve never seen it this high,” Dunbar said.


“We’re getting ready to start to say no.”


Volunteers at the Sheriff King scrambled Friday to ensure the influx of clients, many of them young children, each had a Christmas present under the shelter tree come Sunday. Christmas dinners planned for about 10 people had to quickly be tripled.


Volunteers and staff do everything they can to make the holiday less painful, Dunbar said.


Many of the women in the shelter are fleeing violence. Some are protecting their children, who’ve been physically hurt, too.


“As bad as it is to (have to) make the decision to come into a shelter, it’s best to be safe,” Dunbar said.


“They’re all here because they’re not safe at home.”


Alberta consistently has high domestic violence rates, but shelter staff are perplexed by the sudden surge in clients.


The recent high profile triple-murder suicide in southern Alberta that saw three young people shot to death and another wounded before the perpetrator took his own life may also have prodded some victims to take steps to protect themselves, suggested Dunbar.


The horrific shooting involved an ex-boyfriend targeting his former girlfriend after their relationship soured, police say.


“If you’re a mom in a situation with young kids, you may be thinking, it could happen to them, could it happen to me?,” said Dunbar.


The women seeking help also tell the story of the “other side” of Calgary’s prosperity, said YWCA of Calgary CEO Sue Tomney.


Many of them are considered “working poor,” toiling at low paying jobs where paycheques simply don’t stretch far enough.


“That’s something we all carry as a city. We get caught up in prosperity and forget there are others not keeping pace with the city.”


The city’s collection of family violence shelters work together to do everything they can to ensure each person seeking help has a place to go, Tomney said.

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