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Port Hawkesbury Women's Outreach Centre Struggles to Survive

Community Services rejects request for funding

by Robert Devet

Mask created by an abuse survivor. For more, see http://www.thans.ca/Content/Mask%20Project.
Mask created by an abuse survivor. For more, see http://www.thans.ca/Content/Mask%20Project.

PORT HAWKESBURY — A women's outreach centre in Port Hawkesbury struggling to survive may well continue on for another year.

There has been a women's shelter in Port Hawkesbury for many years.  Managed by the Leeside Transition House, the shelter has provided an efficiently run and much-needed service for women desperate for a way out of abusive relationships. 

Two years ago, Leeside identified a need to open a women’s resource and outreach centre offering more general services than those the shelter provided.  Working closely with its Antigonish counterpart and through some seed funding by the IWK, Leeside leased a space in downtown Port Hawkesbury.  Three days a week the centre offers a welcoming and supportive space for women and adolescent girls. 

“It is providing women with a service that they never had before and women are coming and using it so we know that it is needed," says Leeside director Martina Martens.

However, it is no longer feasible to pay for the outreach centre out of Leeside's existing budget.  Leeside asked the Department of Community Services for help, but the provincial body denied the request. 

When the news hit that a lack of money could spell the demise of the centre, local politicians stepped in to voice their concerns. The outreach centre, though, was not well served by that decision.

First out of the gate was local Tory MLA  Allan MacMaster.  MacMaster issued a press release that did not clearly distinguish between the outreach centre, which was to be closed, and the shelter, which was in no way affected.  As a result, initial reports on local radio made it sound as if the entire women's shelter was on the chopping block.

This commotion caused Martens some grief.  “It was never our intention to make the funding denial public,” she says. “Then the press release went out with all kinds of misinformation and I started getting phone calls.  The next thing I know we are doing a media campaign.” 

At the same time Minister of Community Services Denise Peterson-Rafuse stepped into the fray.  In a phone call with the Halifax Media Co-op Peterson-Rafuse explained her justification for the funding refusal: first, the Leeside shelter is rarely full, so it should be able to shift existing staff around to cut costs; second, Leeside should look at sharing resources with the Sydney-based Cape Breton Family Resource Centre.  

“Ministers of Community Services have been making that argument since the dawn of time,” says Martens. "Occupancy is not a fair measure of what a rural women's shelter does.  We do so much more than what we get credit for.

“The shelter itself, the building, is an anchor to the many other services we provide,” Martens continues. “We get probably more than 6,000 distress calls a year.  We get so many calls because it is easier for people to call then to travel two hours when they have no transportation. So you have to have a certain level of staffing in order to do a 24-hour service.”

The sheer size of the area that Leeside covers is another challenge, says Martens. “Our area includes Inverness and Richmond counties.  From our door to the farthest reaches of  the counties is a two and a half hour drive. So if our outreach person goes to see a woman in Cheticamp she is gone all day to see one woman.” 

Martens does not believe that sharing staff with the Cape Breton Family Resource Centre would be workable. “Their primary focus is parents with children.  It's a different service,” she says.  “They are not providing outreach to single women who are struggling to survive, and they will help a mum with parenting concerns, but they will not find her adequate safe housing.”

Pamela Harrison is the provincial co-ordinator for the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia, an umbrella group for organizations that provide shelter and support to women in spousal abuse situations. Without getting into the specifics of the Port Hawkesbury situation, Harrison makes a case for the important role women's outreach centres play in rural Nova Scotia.

“Sometimes, women will start out at that spot where they are not being labelled as an abused woman, because in small rural areas confidentiality is a huge issue, eventually they develop enough of a trusting relationship that they open up to us about abuse," she says. "It doesn't happen with all of them, but it happens with some of them.”

Meanwhile there is hope for the Port Hawkesbury outreach centre after all.  Martens says “there are other service providers in the community who have a vested interest in keeping the place open and that group said we got to find a way.  I think the place may remain open for another year.”  


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Topics: Gender
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