The Women Left Behind

Western University
March 08, 2018

The relationship between child welfare systems and homelessness is becoming clearer, with almost 60% of youth who experience homelessness in Canada having had contact with the child welfare system. Inadequate supports through the transition out of care can become a pathway into homelessness for youth.

However, in considering the full family network in the context of child welfare, we can see further links between homelessness and this particular system. In a recent evaluation study of a Housing First program for women that chronically experience homelessness in London, Ontario, we explored histories of trauma. The program participants we interviewed, women who experienced high rates of mental health challenges, problematic substance use, gender-based violence, and relationship breakdown, identified complex histories of trauma. Yet, the foundational trauma that women spoke to over, and over, and over was the trauma of child apprehension.

Women’s homelessness includes unique pathways and unique considerations for support. These considerations may include the importance of safety, the potential need to care for or reconnect with children, risks related to sex work, gender-based violence, barriers in accessing services related to safety, reduced visibility and a disproportionate risk for experiencing poverty in general. However, while some women-specific and mixed-gender services have applied a gender lens in preventing or ending homelessness, evidence on the particularities of these services is only beginning to grow. On identifying grief and loss related to child apprehension in the context of women’s homelessness, we searched across Canada for services supporting this particular concern and found only three.

Therefore, as we recognize International Women’s Day across the world, I would encourage us all to consider the women who are left behind when children are apprehended, and the grief and trauma this experience can cause. This is an important consideration for the homelessness sector both in regards to primary prevention, and in regards to permanent and stable exits from homelessness. Proactively supporting women both to prevent apprehension and to support women through the process should apprehension occur will reduce the likelihood of downstream experiences of homelessness. For those who are already experiencing homelessness, Housing First is a proven model of sustainable exits and includes appropriate supports. For many women, appropriate supports means addressing grief and loss related to children.

Dr. Abe Oudshoorn is an Assistant Professor in the Arthur Labatt Family School of Nursing at Western University.  Having worked as a nurse with people experiencing homelessness, Abe’s research focuses on health, homelessness prevention, mental health, and poverty.  Outside of the University, Abe is on the Steering Committee of the London Homeless Coalition and is a board member with the United Way of London & Middlesex.

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