Woman Looking DownOn an average night in Canada, more than 6,000 women and children stay in shelters because it’s not safe for them at home.

But women’s shelters offer victims of abuse and domestic violence much more than a safe place to sleep: they also offer unique programs, respect and resources women need to rebuild their lives free from violence.

Interval House, located in Toronto, is Canada’s oldest shelter for women and children.

At the beginning of each shift change, residential program supervisor Paula Del Cid sits down with the shelter’s counsellors to discuss each client’s individual needs, which may include clothes for her children, one-on-one counselling, assistance with legal or housing matters, or safety planning.

Staff also help women to connect with services not directly provided by the shelter itself, such as legal aid, and help guide them through the criminal justice or family court systems.

According to Sandra Hawken, Director of Engagement and Partnerships at Interval House, the shelter also partners with private sector landlords to help women find housing after they leave, and has developed a special job-training program, shared among other shelters in the Greater Toronto Area, for women who have experienced violence.

In her years at Interval House, Del Cid says she has seen many women form friendships with other residents and staff, learn about healthy relationships and bond with their children. “I think people would be surprised if they saw how women are rebuilding their lives here,” she says.

Unfortunately, most women’s shelters are at or over capacity, and women who need help often have to be turned away. According to Statistics Canada, on a sample night in 2012, 379 women—along with their 215 children—were turned away due to lack of space. When that happens, some women turn to homeless shelters, which don’t provide the extra security needed by women who are fleeing domestic violence.

Hawken says that since it’s harder to fundraise for shelters’ most basic operating needs, money raised through initiatives like the Canadian Women’s Foundation Campaign to End Violence is essential. This annual Campaign, which runs the month of May, raises money for nearly 450 women’s shelters, as well as violence prevention programs across Canada. The funds help shelters fill gaps in their operating budgets and provide basic necessities to clients.

Unlike most financial grants that shelters receive, these funds comes with no strings attached. “We can use it for what we need most,” says Hawken. “We need to keep our security systems working, to keep the lights on, to pay our counsellors, to make sure we can repair the roof when it breaks.”

When women are safely housed and have access to supportive programs, they are able to move forward in their lives by leaps and bounds.

“The change I’ve seen in women as they’re leaving the shelter is huge,” Del Cid says. “They’re empowered, they’re able to take charge of their lives, and they know they deserve better. In the short time they’re here, they can completely turn their lives around.”