Women’s Shelter gets unexpected gift

Building donation means 2nd stage project can proceed in Peace River

Susan Thompson
South Peace News

In the past two years, three women who returned to their abusive situations after leaving the Peace River Regional Women’s Shelter have tragically been killed by their partners.

The women’s shelter says second stage housing may have prevented these tragedies.

Now, thanks to an unexpected donation of a downtown property, the non-profit shelter society may be able to make second stage shelter housing in Peace River a reality.

On May 11, Peace River town council reviewed the shelter’s application to amend the land-use bylaw to allow the women’s shelter society to complete a second stage emergency shelter project.

“Presently we are an emergency shelter, therefore, women can stay up to 30 days before having to leave,” executive director Caroline Sorge and the society wrote to Peace River town council in their application dated April 14.

“Since the Peace Regional Women’s Shelter is the only available shelter in our area, stays are extended when we have reason to believe the woman is at immediate risk or will be able to transition into the community given a short amount of additional time.”

However, the short-term stay in the existing shelter is too often not enough.

“It is clear that after a month many women still face considerable challenges, require heightened security and continued support to make a successful transition to an independent and violence free life. In the face of this situation, second stage housing is crucial,” the shelter society says.

Second-stage shelters give women a place to stay for three months up to two years after leaving the current emergency shelter, and offer independence through apartment-style living while still having staff nearby for support and extra security.

The Peace River Regional Women’s Shelter Society has been fundraising in the hopes of adding a second stage shelter to the existing shelter building. But despite already receiving an $866,000 grant from Alberta Community and Social Services as well as local support, the society wasn’t able to afford the addition.

“We could not afford any amount greater than $1.2 million. After putting the project out to tender twice, we were unable to secure a bid of $1.2 million or less for this project,” the shelter society says.

The society was also not allowed to purchase a property under the terms of the grant, and with all options exhausted, the project stalled.

Then, in April, the women’s shelter was unexpectedly gifted a six-unit bachelor suite building next door to the AHS Mental Health building. Built in 2015-16, the building is worth $540,000.

The society’s land-use bylaw amendment application does not name the generous mystery donor.

The women’s shelter hopes to convert the donated building into four apartments and two offices where shelter staff would provide services to the women and their families. Each apartment unit would have two bedrooms, a kitchen, a 3/4 bath and a living area. Additional security would be added and monitored to help keep the women and children living there safe.

Fehr and Square have quoted the shelter a price of $257,985.82 for the renovation with a four-month completion date. As the original local architect and builder, and the company that has been maintaining the building, the shelter says Fehr and Square should be able to complete the project quickly.

The original grant will cover the renovation expense, and the society would only need approximately $20,000 for furniture, beds and appliances for the new apartments.

That means the project can be completed with the funds already raised, no new grants or funding will be needed, and the shelter will end up with a $574,114.89 funding surplus.

“Once the building is renovated for use as second stage housing, it will be sustained through rent collected from the women,” the shelter says.

However, there’s still one roadblock to overcome.

The donated property is zoned mixed commercial and residential, meaning the land-use bylaw needs to be changed before the project can go ahead.

Town administration recommends council spot redistrict the property to make it Community Development District instead, which would allow it to be used as an emergency shelter.

“It means that we can consider it at this one site but we’re not having to deal with any other site in the downtown,” planning manager Alisha Mody says.

The first reading of the bylaw amendment to spot redistrict the proposed property to become a Community Development District instead of a mixed commercial- residential district passed unanimously.

The Town of Peace River will now schedule and advertise a public hearing on the bylaw amendment to allow neighbouring landowners and the public to have their say on the proposal.

Since the project falls within the Inter-municipal Development Plan area, Northern Sunrise County must also be notified and asked for feedback.

Northern Sunrise has already supported the second stage shelter project with grant money.

After the upcoming hearing, the public may also be asked to consider another emergency shelter proposal soon.

“I would like to acknowledge that there is definitely a chance we will receive a very similar application that would qualify as an emergency shelter in the downtown in the near future,” Mody says.

“They’re not associated applications so we didn’t want to try and do some sort of blanket amendment that would deal with them both that could definitely get any issues associated with them muddled, so we’re keeping them separate.”

If the other application is submitted to the Town, Mody says administration could likely recommend council deal with it in the same way.

The current women’s shelter serves a 100-km radius around Peace River, and 90 per cent of its clientele come from outside the town. In 2017-18, 199 women and 121 children accessed the shelter. Of those women, 143 required outreach and follow up programs, and 80 per cent were aboriginal.

Advocates fear those numbers could increase this year, because according to the Government of Alberta, rates of family violence increase during public health crises like the coronavirus pandemic and during economic downturns.

Alberta had some of the highest rates of domestic violence in Canada even before the recent crash of oil prices and the required isolation of quarantines, which can put women and children at greater risk of domestic violence and abuse.

The Peace River Regional Women’s Shelter is still accepting clients but has an isolation process in place.

Anyone seeking help with domestic abuse can call [780] 624-3466 [24 Hour Help Line] or toll free at [1-877] 624-3466.

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