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Gender Matters: We Can Do Better

March 10, 2015

Yesterday, around the world, we celebrated International Women’s Day. I usually reflect on this day about the many incredible and resilient women I have had the privilege to get to know over the years from My Sisters’ Place.  This year, I found myself reflecting and feeling some grief and anger.

Late last week we were notified by the City of London that they would no longer fund My Sisters’ Place as part of their Housing First/Homelessness Prevention Strategy through the federal government’s Homeless Partnering Strategy funding. (They continue to receive $75,000 a year through the Community Homeless Prevention Initiative). This means we now rely on fundraising for 87% of the operating budget of My Sisters’ Place.

My Sisters’ Place began ten years ago when women of lived experience, service providers and community members got together to try to figure out how so many marginalized women in our community were falling through the cracks in the homelessness, mental health and addictions systems. Since it opened, demand for services has only grown. It maintains a unique culture of sisterhood that has created trust with women who would not otherwise seek supports in the community. It maintains community values where respect, inclusiveness and compassion are woven in to relationships between staff, volunteers, participants and all who walk through the door. It is a program that has always been ahead of its time; this requires bold, innovative and collaborative funders.

The only real source of stable operations funding the program has had over the years has been through the City’s homelessness program funding. We have knocked on the door of every community funder and every level of government only to be told that funding a gender specific program is not in their priorities (although they recognize the effectiveness of the work done at My Sisters’ Place).  Other communities are supporting and growing services for women (Sistering in Toronto for example) because they are creating better outcomes.  In reality, the only funders who truly get what this program does are the generous members of our community who donate to support the program and for which we are eternally grateful.

Over the past few years the City has regularly cut funding to many social services which support homeless populations as they create what they call a coordinated system. Partnerships are hard work, but they are worth it and create better outcomes for individuals. Creating a Housing First system that doesn’t include (or fund) all the community organizations doing the work to support housing stability and who have relationships of trust with individuals seeking services is not going to work. Creating a Housing First system (of which a key component is rapid engagement of mental health services when they are needed) without meaningful engagement with the largest community mental health service in our community is not going to create a system that actually supports people. I hope our new Council takes a good long look at this strategic direction and puts individuals seeking services first. We can do better.

The landscape of funding has shifted across the country to a Housing First model that has had incredible outcomes for many, but it has not shown it is as effective for women, Aboriginal people, Trans individuals and many other groups that are often overlooked when policy is being created. With a new City Council that appears to want to invest in a welcoming and inclusive community, the decision of staff to choose not to fund My Sisters’ Place shows a lack of leadership and understanding when it comes to a gender based approach to women’s services.

City staff will remark that “tough decisions need to be made”. Respectfully, tough decisions are the ones made in the full view of stakeholders. Not the ones made behind closed doors.  Tough choices are made in consultation with the people impacted.  It is to me the ultimate failure of bureaucracy. The decision makers are removed and don’t see the faces of the people their decisions impact.

There may be good reasons for the City to cut funding to My Sisters’ Place and I am sure we will be told these good reasons as we go through an appeal process – the beginning of which is meeting with the decisions makers who cut the funding; the same decision makers who advised us as to where to direct our reapplication for funding and then denied the request.  We have seen City funding for My Sisters’ Place cut every year since 2011.

The women who come to My Sisters’ Place have been so let down by the numerous systems of support – the fact they are comfortable to walk through the door, build relationships with outreach workers from many community partners and grow into being contributing citizens again is a testament to the incredible work that is done in that space. The woman who use the services at My Sisters’ Place have often experienced every horror we can imagine and many horrors beyond our grasp.  Homelessness, abuse, addiction, isolation.  They have often had their children taken away and they have seen their Sisters murdered and go missing. They have been to dark places many of us will never, thankfully see.

Then they come to My Sisters’ Place and find hope and healing.  They find a community of remarkable women who have survived and are now thriving and giving back.  My Sisters’ Place helps women realize their potential – helps them realize and channel their resilience into more than just surviving.  There are countless stories of women who have come through the doors at My Sisters’ Place and are now living healthy safe lives.  They are housed, employed, volunteering, and giving back.  They have reclaimed their children, are artists, social workers and entrepreneurs.  They are possessed of such human dignity and grace.  Resilience.

So our fight continues to find a funder courageous enough to invest in the yearly operations of this high impact program. At CMHA Middlesex, we are fully committed to keeping the doors open and services running at My Sisters’ Place.  We will also appeal this decision by City Staff because the women at My Sisters’ Place deserve better and shouldn’t have to also fight to keep the doors open. The fight is not just for My Sisters’ Place, it is also for supports for Native communities, new Canadians, LGBTQ communities and others. Not all people benefit from one conforming system: we know better as a community. We can do better.

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