Looking Back: Fragments From Women’s Shelters (1981 – 1996) -The Toast

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Joanne last wrote for The Toast about Dr. Henry Morgentaler and the experience of obtaining legal permission for a Canadian abortion in the 1970s.

I was talking to my niece (THAT’S ME – Ed.) about women’s shelters in the 1980s and 1990s and I thought I’d record some of my memories, which, in turn, bring up some of the issues we had to address. During that time, I was the administrator of two different women’s shelters – one for women who were experiencing domestic violence and one for homeless women. 

I am writing this in order to provide my take on shelter life during that time, hopefully sparking some curiosity and interest by others whose lives perhaps have never been touched by circumstances necessitating refuge. Some readers might even feel moved to check out what challenges their local shelters are experiencing and how they can be supportive. What follows are my memories of that time in my life and the work we did together: sad, angry, funny, frustrating.

Shelter staff, circa 1985, author top left

Shelter staff circa 1985, author top left 


I arrived at Interval House that first day to a very cold welcome. The staff had not been advised of my start date or my name and, of course, any visitor arriving at the front door of a shelter whose address was confidential was highly scrutinized. After some convincing, I was allowed in to begin my first job as an administrator of…anything at all.

My MSW and, I think, the fact that I was not familiar with the community got me the job. The board saw these as real assets given that some staff were agitating for change at the structural level and being more radical: putting up signs about stopping violence against women, etc. (The horror!)

I was the third ED so far that year (two others had been nursing administrators in their previous lives) so I wasn’t sure I would make it through probation. In fact, I advised my husband to keep his job in Toronto until after my probationary period was over because the whole thing seemed quite tenuous and I wasn’t sure what I was being graded on.

I came with a strong sense of social justice and experience around class and poverty issues but did not yet identify as a feminist. I was married at the time and had grown up in a working-class rural Catholic household and community. Perhaps my feminist leanings were emerging, but they were certainly not particularly visible to me or those close to me at the time. Although I hadn’t worked in management before, I had certainly been “managed” and I knew what kind of administrator I did not want to be. There were 3 full-time staff, 2 part-time staff and relief workers and over time, although our responsibilities were different, our hourly rate merged to be the same across the board. We worked on shelter procedures, drafted policies to recommend to the Board of Directors and spend many hours in staff meetings identifying value statements, our philosophy and mission. In the mid-1980s we finally identified the shelter as a feminist organization and what that meant operationally.

Based on a model from another city, we initiated the establishment of a Co-ordinating Committee on Domestic Violence Against Women (we couldn’t come up with a shorter name.) This was a very dynamic group with representation from law, medicine, the police, the shelter, clergy, social work reinforcing and educating the community that wife assault was a crime and that the whole community and the systems within it were responsible for perpetuating this behavior. Individual women, men and children were the victims but the roots of this abusive controlling behavior were systemic.


A shelter was not the solution to male violence in the long term but it was clearly a political statement. Its mere existence caused a backlash with angry calls coming in from men, accusations of the staff being man-hating lesbians. The concern for the staff and organization was not about the safety of the shelter as, although men phoned and spouted venom, very few actually confronted us on the doorstep. The concern was that women in the community who needed the shelter would be afraid to come based on these attempts to discredit the work.


Even though we were operating in what was referred to as a “participatory hierarchy,” we wanted to further decentralize to become more of a collective. The organizational shifting placed justifiable importance on the life experience of staff and less on academic qualifications. Few staff were university-educated, several had college diplomas but for the most part we hired women who were skilled managers of households, working-class, non-judgmental, child-positive and willing to embrace the challenges of making the shelter more diverse, more accessible and willing to call themselves feminists (albeit self-defined.) We saw the importance of true peers: women with whom the residents could identify, and we wanted residents to see women running the organization successfully, without a man at the top.


Inevitably, shelters are social service agencies and they have had to become so in order to secure and retain adequate funding from levels of government and foundations. As “charitable” organizations, political activity and advocacy are highly frowned upon and can cost an organization their charitable status leaving them virtually unable to attract much-needed donations. The model of feminist-identified shelters being hubs of activism and agents for change was lost.


We heard from a police officer that Mr. J was terribly distraught, as his wife hadn’t been home in two days. He wanted me to tell him whether she was at the shelter as this could save him having to complete a Missing Persons Report. We had a very strict policy about confidentiality. The police did not like our policy and threatened more than once to charge us with obstructing justice. After several years of wrangling, we managed to work out a compromise. When a resident came to the shelter, we would encourage her to contact the police to tell them she was fine and not missing in case her partner/husband should contact them. The women didn’t have to say where they were, just that they were safe. After this, the police started co-operating with the shelter more.


Working hard to challenge ourselves around our own issues of racism, ableism, sexism, and homophobia, and cementing new ways of thinking and acting in policies and procedures, particularly hiring policies, so they couldn’t change with new leadership, at least, not easily.


There was Mary, a Polish immigrant, who would take food from the kitchen table, any scraps that had been left, to her room. She had spent time in a concentration camp. She tried to teach a staff member how to crochet. After three attempts, Mary said, “You should play cards.”


I was, and still am, somewhat baffled by the sometimes arbitrary distinctions made between domestic violence and homeless shelters. The reason mandates needed to be spelled out was always to satisfy our funders, not because women’s lives fit easily into one set of criteria over another. Lines were drawn around immediate danger and/or a woman identifying as abused. The majority of women in the homeless shelter, however, had also been abused; they just weren’t in immediate danger of violence at the hands of their partners. The staff handling the crisis lines had to sort out which shelter a potential resident should go to. However, if you took into account the entirety of a woman’s life experience, these distinctions seemed artificial and, in some instances, created more personal crises for those trying to navigate the system.


Our policy was “No woman will be turned away.” What that meant for several nights in 1982 was thirty-two women and children housed in a 12-bed shelter with one 3-burner stove. We set up mattresses everywhere, including the floor of the office. 


One woman was admitted rather late in the day from hospital with a fractured jaw that had been wired shut. She offered, “I should have known better – the news was on.” She moved in and out of the shelter a few times, always returning to the same abusive man until he ended her life. Twenty-nine years later, in 2012, I got a call from a police officer asking me if I remembered her. I did. He wanted to know if I would be a witness as the man was being charged with assault causing bodily harm. The woman was in hospital in a vegetative state. Within a year she was dead and he was charged with murder. The judge decided he was unfit to stand trial. I didn’t get to say what I really wanted that evil man to hear.


Residents frequently expressing surprise that all the staff and most of the board members were women. How could we manage to do what we did without men? Occasionally one or two men would get elected to the Board of Directors  – I remember a Catholic priest who made the decision to be the Secretary so he would be “less apt to talk too much.” He believed that major decisions should not be influenced by men at a women’s shelter.” I was pretty impressed with that! 


Frequent bouts of head lice – laundry, laundry, laundry!


Women returning time and again to abusive men because the men were “sorry and would never do it again.” They went back because they loved and cared about these guys, the fathers of their children – not because they wanted to be abused. Some lines from a song my daughter wrote called “Easy Lies”: “…it takes time to crawl out of holes I’ve dug myself into” remind me of this cycle. 


Exciting growth across the province in the early to mid-1980s in the form of interest and money for establishing community outreach, women’s training and education programs, child-focused programming, and most importantly, community co-ordinating committees comprised of lawyers, police officers, clergy, social workers, shelter staff, ex-residents, and doctors. Framing the issue as a community problem requiring the whole community, not just shelters, to address abusive/controlling men was catching on and making a difference. It wasn’t only “those crazy man-hating feminists” who were calling men out – the message about unacceptable behavior was coming from many directions, including the criminal justice system, which was sometimes the only message these men heard because they were forced to.

Activism was palpable. There was no end of rallies, marches, gatherings of women, Speak Outs, coffee houses, International Women’s Day and Take Back the Night events organized by several women’s groups from the university campus and from the community. We took to the streets chanting, yelling and screaming:

What do women want?


When do we want it?


Hey, hey, ho, ho

Violence against women has got to go

No more patriarchy

No more shit.


Enter a majority for the Conservative Party in the Provincial Legislature after a relatively short stint with the province run by the NDP. Mike “Hatchet Man” Harris became Premier of Ontario in the early 1990s and he started hacking away at social services, income maintenance programs, rent-geared-to-income housing, etc. The situation for low-income people in Ontario got a whole lot worse. Women were very fearful (with good reason!) of not being able to manage financially on their own and this was happening in the context of severe cutbacks in social assistance, hitting single mothers the hardest. Many chose to stay in abusive relationships so they could feed, house and clothe their children.

Housing Rally, Queen's Park, Toronto,  1989, Author on right with her daughter

The author holding her daughter at a housing rally in Toronto, 1989

We had hoped – the staff that is – that supporting the women residents would be support enough for the children. We didn’t have the resources to look further so we almost convinced ourselves that the kids would be okay if mom was better. As fate would have it, Bronwen Wallace, renowned author and poet, came to work at the shelter, and through her, we came to see the children as little people needing as much support and programming as their moms. Bronwen worked tirelessly to build support for “The Space,” an area in the shelter for children offering both one-on-one time and group activities. Most shelters today have designated child support staff and targeted budgets for children’s programming.


Phone calls from hostile and disingenuous men asking why there isn’t a shelter for men? My response: “Some men are abused but I have a full-time job running this shelter. Men are going to have to organize their own shelter.” Click! 

Men, of course, DID need and deserve their own resources as victims of domestic violence, but those were never the ones calling me with sneering voices.


Not ever being able to truly guarantee safety for residents and for staff.


A 12-year-old setting fire in the linen closet (which was the size of a small bedroom) of a 20-bed shelter and heading off to his bed for the night.


Women waiting around most of the day to get that one call from their partner calling from one of the local penitentiaries. “He would be so angry with me if I wasn’t home and missed his call.” The same women would insist that their partner wasn’t controlling.


Staff with their own issues, being triggered in the day-to-day life of the shelter, hearing the stories, remembering their own.


A woman desperate for cocaine, grabbing a knife from the kitchen and threatening another resident. She had never been violent before. The number of women addicted to drugs – street drugs, prescription drugs, alcohol – forced shelters to re-think safety guidelines and rules for staying at the shelter and behaviours which could result in residents being asked to leave.


Women needing safe refuge from their abusive partner, another woman. Our simplistic feminist belief system was shaken and threw us off balance. Not all men were abusive and not all women were angels. 


I’m a believer that one should take breaks from this kind of intense work in order to allow other aspects of life to show themselves. Over time (in my case, 15 years), constantly hearing the stories and seeing the horrific behavior that men perpetuate on women, can leave one with a skewed sense of relationships between men and women. I almost lost sight of healthy relationships to the point that I doubted their existence. One of the best jobs I had post-shelter work was with an open adoption agency where I met some amazing couples who were truly partners in life. These men were not about power and control. They were attentive to their female partners, respectful and empathetic. I will never lose my antenna regarding abuse of power and power imbalances but I’m good where I’m at right now, supporting shelters in my community but not inextricably attached – a good vantage point for now.


This is for all the time

It’s taken me to learn

That terror is not always

Sudden, as I thought it was,

The fist or the bomb

Ripping the sky open;

That often it is slow

And duller

As August stupefies a city

That glazed season we come to

Out of helplessness,

The wound shut off

From the eye, from the brain

Going on, going on alone

Behind sheets and sheets of anaesthetic.

– Excerpt from “Intervals,” The Stubborn Particulars of Grace, Bronwen Wallace, McClelland and Stewart, 1987.


A lesbian feminist mother, former shelter, adoption and HIV/AIDS worker, currently juggling 2 part-time jobs as a legal assistant and pedicurist, living in Yarker, Ontario. She occasionally performs in the drag king group "Just Boyz" and is a major groupie for her singer-songwriter daughter and a hearty opponent of Stephen Harper.

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