The Shelter Crisis

By: Victoria Forero-Moreno

What do you worry about on the daily basis? I’m sure you’re anxious about driving in the 8am traffic, or repeatedly asking yourself if you remembered to record your favourite show on your PVR. You walk by the same people every day on your way to work. You know... Those people sitting on the side of the road, with knotted hair and a McDonalds cup by their side. But you never think twice, because you always have a home to come too late at night, and snuggle up into a warm bed with a cozy cup of tea, so you just hurry along to work, just as you always do. Now imagine being outside, sleeping on the cold hard pavement, the bone-chilling wind creeping through your clothes, wondering when is the next time you’ll be able to feed your child. It may sound like something straight out of a movie, right? Well it’s not. Life itself is stressful, but just imagine how much harder it would be if you had no money, and no home, all while taking care of your child.

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 For many, having a home and bed to relax in every day is a privilege. Through the 20th century many sky scrapers have been added to the city, making it the hub of entertainment and business. Making it seem full of money and potential. But within those streets is a hidden secret, violence against women is on a rise and so is the number of homeless women. In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, we notice the people sitting on the ground, but do you ever stop to think how or why they ended up there? Do you ever wonder if they attempted to seek refuge at a shelter? Toronto is a multicultural city in a first world country, therefore many people believe that everyone has at least basic resources available.

One in three women experience domestic violence at some point in their relationship with their partner, 73% of women were trying to escape a domestic violence situation. Nellie’s was one of Canada’s first shelter for women in crisis, and it still remains. Their mission is to provide services for women and children in need who are experiencing or have experiences oppression, violence, and homelessness. The shelter is run by a group of loving feminists who are committed to creating social change by educating these women and their young children.

Prior to opening the shelter, over four decades ago, June Callwood and her fellow feminist activists took action once they realized that there was an imbalance and gap of resources available for men versus the ones available for women. Just forty years ago, in Toronto, there were only forty beds available for women, yet four hundred available for men. Though some may argue that the imbalance is due to there being more homeless men or women, the injustice needed to be fixed. It is especially interesting due to the fact that women make up thirty-five percent of the total number of homeless people here in Toronto. Considering there are almost 5300 homeless people on the city's streets, almost 1900 of them are women.

Lee Wiggins: “We need to start with a gender based analysis.”

This is Lee Wiggins, a Women’s studies professor here at York University, as well as the founder of Lee Wiggins’ Childcare Center right on York’s Keele Campus. She suggests that the reason women become homeless is due to the oppression they face, and to understand that oppression one must look in the perspective of a gender based analysis.

Lee: “And I think a big one is the whole phenomenon of feminization of poverty. Women in Canadian society are more likely to be poor [than men]. They’re vulnerable to being poor and women with children are even more vulnerable."

As she teaches in many of her gender courses, individuals are put into categories labeled “other” due to racial stereotypes, especially those surrounding Hispanic, black and indigenous women. But why are women more likely to be poor or considered financially unstable? What creates this vulnerability? The dominant ideology is a term used to refer to the idea that men are more dominant and powerful than women, which is the reason it creates so many limitations in a women’s life, such as the wage gap or accessibility to resources. The root of the issue starts in the structural hierarchy and capitalist form of society.

For many people, Nellie’s Women's Shelter is a place to find comfort when their safety is on a knife’s edge. They started with 16 beds, which have now increased to 36. Not only is Nellie’s providing beds for homeless women, but as well as domestic violence survivors, and their children. In an ever growing population of homeless women, they need a place to stay that offers a warm bed and safety.  The shelter was named after Nellie McClung, who is considered by many the pioneer feminist in Canada, who challenge many social and political laws. Originally, the shelter was meant strictly for homeless women either dealing with pregnancy, domestic abuse, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, mental health issues and prostitution. Once the shelter was established, the volunteers noticed that most of the women seeking refuge at Nellie’s were middle-aged with their own family. Nellie’s women’s shelter provides aid and resources to domestic violence survivors.

Marry: “The relationship was troubled.”

This is Mary speaking in a short documentary made by the shelter. she is a middle aged women who married her ex-husband young age, and later had children, whom she took with her to Nellie’s when she fled from her home due to her husband’s violence.

Marry: “I didn’t understand what it was that i kept doing that would make him so crazily angry.”

Her daughters remember vividly the days they saw their mother being dehumanized by their own father. The violence they witnessed took a dramatic impact on their lives, a life they no longer wanted to endure.

This is Sarah, Marry’s daughter, who at the time was a young child when she witness the traumatic domestic violence happening within her own home.

Sarah: “I do remember my mom being pushed and going out to the car and having all of our clothes thrown across the driveway and sort of that confusion. I mean not really knowing what’s going on.”

Marry: “The part that really helped were the supports that were in place there, which were people to talk to. All the things were there. I got on welfare, I got an apartment, it was subsidized. It was all the emotional support I needed, there were the physical supports in place, there was someone to help me thing about what I wanted to do next in my life. That support was critical.”

Half of all women in Canada have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16. Since 1973, Nellie’s Women's Shelter has helped over 15,000 women and children.

Marry: “I remember the first thing I said when I got into the shelter was ‘don’t let me go back. I can’t go back.’ And so I never did.”

Another extraordinary thing Nellie’s Women’s Shelter does is host many fundraising activities all throughout the year. One of their events is the Back to School and Basics Campaign where they try to collect as many school supplies, such as back packs and pens, for the children at the shelter. This is a crucial aspect in raising awareness in the youth community, because instead of missing school due to lack of supplies or shelter, they are able to go and get an education. With the support of humbling donors, the shelter was able to acquire 70 backpack packs, each filled with colorful school supplies. That means that 70 children are now able to go to school without having to worry about using their mother’s money, or not being able to take notes in class due to lack of supplies. Not only that, but many took the initiative to bring a little special something for the women too, such as toiletries, towels, and new bed sheets.

A child’s emotional, physical, and cognitive development may all be put at risk during their period of homelessness. The age of the child is an important factor when it comes to analyzing the circumstances of both juggling school, and trying to maintain what society would call “a normal family atmosphere.”

Lee: “It it’s something that occurs at a very early age, it could affect the child’s attachment to parents and there is a lot of research coming from psychologists, that shows that early positive attachment is critical to a child’s development and adulthood. Children who don’t have secure positive attachment can have all kinds of problems including issues around violence.”

If these issues are not dealt with while the child is still young, the child may grow up with the same habits of violence from their fathers. As a young child, they may feel like there’s an extra added stress on their shoulder due to scarcity of food and always wonder when their next meal may be. Situations like these may often cause mental health issues such as anxiety, depression or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.

Lee: “I think it can really teach children that the world is a scary place, that they have very little control over the world. It can produce what social psychologists would call ‘and external locus of control, which the individual in that scenario thinks ‘I have no control over the world’. And then obviously there are going to be issues around cognitive development around social development and around physical and mental health. An enormous number of consequences, not only at that time in the child’s life but subsequently. It can really cast a long shadow. And then this means there are going to be societal costs. Its not just an individual cost. I really believe that any issues around children are clearly social issues, that they impact us for generations to come.

Places like Nellie’s, not only provide secure and welcoming shelters, but it can possibly lower the crime rate in Toronto. Mother’s won’t feel the need to steal food from a grocery store to ensure the health of their child, and drug use and distribution would be reduced.

Lee: “Working to develop women’s, skills and abilities and confidence, so that they’re able to construct a better life for themselves and their children. And I think that the message that it gives to those women’s children is that ‘it’s possible for me,’ that there is really more hope, and I think that's a powerful thing."

For a young child growing up at a shelter, it can provide them hope and prosperity for the future, distancing them from the gang violence and crime on the streets.

In her dissertation, called On her own: Young women's pathways to homelessness, Hillary Rebekah Smith explains that it is important to challenge the idea that all of the youth on the street are white boys, in order to fully comprehend why they get into violence and drugs. She says that this depiction is tied to a number of social and cultural norms, making it seem as though it was the child's fault for getting themselves into these situations. Smith explains that a solution would be to promote programs that teach these children how to live a healthy and positive life, and enhancing services that are available to them and their mothers. She then goes on to explain that more emphasis should be put in addressing the violence at its root with the men in the family environment. The young children, especially girls, face harsher judgment from society, therefore they believe they need protection, leading them to find unbalanced comfort in gangs. Girls may often need money to buy their basic hygienic products, but with no money, they may feel as though prostitution is their only hope, putting them at even greater risks and disadvantages. 

To inspire the children, Nellie’s always makes sure to keep a fresh and enjoyable schedule for the children full of fun activities. On some days, all the children go to excursions together, like to the museum, and often times they have their own cooking and gardening classes for both the children and the mothers. Allowing children to be children during this stressful time is the key to expanding their skills. It is important for them to interact with other children and perform tasks that kids their age do and enjoy as well, so that they are socially developed. This is all part of Nellie’s goals in order to ensure that the children feel like they are no different than the other children at their school who don’t live in shelters. Giving these opportunities is a way of seeing these young children and their mothers thrive and grow into the amazing people that they are.

Nellie’s is a non-profit organization using the help and willingness of individuals. Without private support through donations, the women would not be able to survive outside. The fact that there are only a mere number of beds available for women, and their children, shows just how invisible and censored they are from the public’s eyes. There are so many stereotypes leading people to believe that all homeless people are the middle aged men. A lot of people have difficulty envisioning the fact that women, especially those with children are homeless, because they have never discussed or paid attention to these issues, so they don’t see the need to improve. This is why women’s movements need to get involved with this issue.

Toronto desperately needs to provide proper housing strategies funded by the government to ensure that this issue decrease within the next few years. If we as Toronto citizens come together to raise awareness, we can end violence against women. It is important for Toronto citizens just like you, to acknowledge that this is an issue that needs to be addressed because it will have a large impact on the future. We will be feeling the impact of an ever growing population of homeless women for the next generations to come and dealing with the consequences.

At Nellie’s Women’s shelter the staff is committed to providing wonderful resources for women and their children in order for their voices to be heard and change to be made. If you would like to make a difference in a domestic violence survivors’ life, you can simply volunteer at a shelter like Nellie’s or even speak up when you see a women being treated badly, or participate in community events.

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Family Violence and Homelessness: A Review of the Literature. (2012). Public Health Agency of Canada. 

Nellie’s. (2016). Nellie’s Women’s Shelter

Quick facts about homelessness and social housing in Toronto. (2016). City of Toronto.

Robinson, J. (2014). Nellie’s Women’s Shelter: Nellie’s Hostels Inc.. Community Knowledge Center

Smith, H. R. (2008). On her own: Young women's pathways to homelessness (Order No. 3341336). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304687627). Retrieved from

Thank-you for making our Back to School & Basics Campaign a success. (2011). Nellie’s

Zuckerman, F. (Director). (2012). Nellie’s Shelter: Full Length Documentary. YouTube. Retrieved from


Recommended Readings

Falvo, N. (2009). Homelessness, Program Responses and an Assessment of Toronto's Streets to Homes Program. Canadian policy Research Networks.

Khandor, E., & Mason, K. (2007). The Street Health Report. Street Health.

Shum, D. (2016). Homeless Shelters in Toronto Bursting at the Seams. Global News.

Victimization and Special Challenges of Women Living on or Near the Streets of Toronto. (2008). Ontario Women's Justice Network


I would like to thank Professor Lee Wiggins at York University for allowing me to interview her, and sharing her knowledge about women's issues in Canada.