Addressing Crisis: The Bloom Group’s Trudi Shymka Shares How Women Shelters Are Critical Elements in the Effort to End Homelessness

After working over 25 years in women’s shelters, The Bloom Group’s Associate Executive Director Trudi Shymka understands the complicated circumstances leading to homelessness – as well as the factors enabling women to regain their housing. In 2017, for example, the staff team at The Bloom Group’s Springhouse and Powell Place facilities helped transition 131 women and children directly into housing or treatment.

Trudi’s experience and commitment to meaningful responses to women’s crisis were reasons why she was asked to author (thanks to a recommendation from BC Housing) a chapter in the recently published Beyond Shelters: Solutions to Homelessness in Canada from the Front Lines, a book that explains the innovative services and programs offered by homeless shelters across Canada today. Gone are the days when shelters provided only a cot.

The Bloom Group’s Executive Director Jonathan Oldman talked with Trudi about her chapter “Addressing Crisis” in Beyond Shelters and how shelters serving women, and women with children, are a vital part of the strategy to address homelessness.

Jonathan: What did the book editor hope you specifically would bring to the discussion about shelters?

Trudi: James Hughes, who has worked in housing for years, was looking for me to discuss the particular needs of women and families when they come to shelters; how are we, the shelters, part of the solution; and how we are part of solving homelessness.

Shelters are sometimes seen as part of the problem, not part of the solution. They do take a tremendous amount of resources to manage. So, how do we see ourselves as part of moving forward and ending this crisis of homelessness?

What are the key messages around this question in your chapter?

The most important thing that I wanted to come across was that shelters are more than just a place answering the need for somewhere to sleep at night, especially for women and women with children – they’re looking for a response to their crisis.

Women come with a variety of experiences. They’ve all experienced violence and marginalization. Some have mental health and substance abuse challenges. They need so much more than just a place to put their head down at night.

The particular role that women shelters can provide is one of understanding that trauma, exploitation and marginalization, and meet women where they’re at, supporting them until they’re ready to make the move out of homelessness.

Ending homelessness for women and families is not only about having a place to go to, but being ready to go there, so you’ll be successful.

How should women shelters move forward to stay relevant and be part of a solution?

Well, obviously, it’s a challenge. There’s a huge shortage of safe, appropriate housing for women to move into.

Shelters, especially shelters for women and families, need to continue to build their skills around addressing trauma, being part of women’s path to recovery from their life experiences, and supporting them to build capacity.

There’s a way of thinking about shelters that we shouldn’t offer extras, that we should just offer the minimum and support our clients to look for those resources in the community.

But women in crisis need safety, security, and a feeling of being home in a community with other women to even start to address those issues, and isolated housing doesn’t meet all those for every woman. We need to continue to build our skills to offer those services within the shelters so that we can support women to move as quickly as they can from shelters to homes.

And I think we need to continue to find ways to divert women and families from shelters and finding ways to support them in the community before they fall into the need for shelters.

Is that the one thing you would add to the resources provided by shelters?

That’s the number one priority for me.

If we could add a new service delivery model, it would be that we have connections in the community to identify women before they fall into homelessness and have the resources to solve some of the challenges women are facing that might cause them to lose their housing.

Without betraying any confidentiality, is there one story or example that inspires you to keep doing this work?

First, I think the most inspiring thing about this work is that women, who have no reason to trust us and no reason to trust anyone, come to us. They trust us to deliver services and to make a difference for them or help them make a difference for themselves.

The one story that I carry with me every day is about a young woman. She came into our shelter having just lost her children into the care of the Ministry of Children and Families and having survived an abusive partner which resulted in some substance abuse challenges for her.

She came into the shelter and was with us for a long time. The young woman worked on her recovery and worked on reconnecting with her children. We supported her to move into transitional housing, where over time, her children were returned to her.

To see her get to that place in her life made it all worthwhile. Even if that was the only family we achieved that with, it made it all worthwhile.

Beyond Shelters: Solutions to Homelessness in Canada from the Front Lines is available for purchase from its publisher.