AWAC—An Association Advocating for Women and Children was created in 1994 by a small group of community activists and social service providers in Prince George. The group was responding to an identified need for more accessible and appropriate services for street-involved women and female youth. These women and girls were living in poverty, homelessness and struggling with addiction, mental illness and exploitation. Many were engaged in survival sex to maintain their addictions. Many were dying violently or alone. All were engaged in a daily battle to survive.
With so many obstacles, the women were rarely able to access safe and supportive resources. Existing services were mostly based on sobriety and asked too much of women who barely saw past each day. It was clear that vulnerable women in Prince George were in need of a safe place, a refuge from life on the streets.
After gathering together donations of money, time and materials, and securing a very small contract with the provincial government, the Quebec Street 24-hour Emergency Shelter opened in 1995. The shelter offered 19 crisis beds on a 24-hour-a-day, year-round basis for women and female youth. The program provided meals, snacks, coffee, outerwear and personal items for residents, as well as access to laundry and hygiene facilities.
Quebec Street Shelter—Outreach and Love
Our emergency shelter program was created to be very flexible, with a minimum of rules. Basically, the rules consisted of policies designed to maintain safety for clients and staff. In the beginning, women were asked to be sober when they came in. But it soon became obvious that we would not be meeting their needs if that policy continued. The guideline was changed, basing access on behaviour rather than sobriety. This allowed better access for women, while allowing staff to manage high-risk situations.
Whatever the women needed from us was what we tried to provide. I say "tried," because the needs were great, and at times overwhelming. Knowing that we couldn't offer everything they needed, we started with what we could easily give: love and acceptance. Lots of it. The staff hugged them, fed and clothed them and in many ways became their mothers, their families.
During the first few years of operation, approximately 250 individuals stayed with us annually. The usual length of stay was about three weeks, but many women stayed for much longer - sometimes for months. Many came to stay a number of times.
We then started building connections with other service providers in the community, to start breaking down the obstacles women often faced in getting needed services. Most of our clients had little trust, and little patience for wait-lists and paperwork. But, in spite of the challenges, we were providing shelter, support, outreach and referral to over 300 women a year.
During our fourth year of service, we created the outreach support program. Clients were still feeling frustrated and discouraged by the barriers to service. Staff were also discouraged by the inability of the community to help these women and girls in ways that might improve their lives. A small amount of funding was secured for a worker who provided clients with support, advocacy and accompaniment to appointments and meetings.
Over time, this program has grown into an important resource, not only for women who access our services, but also for other service providers working with vulnerable women and girls. The outreach worker is often the person who pulls together all of a woman's support people, so that a strong and practical plan can be put in place to assist her. This has also created much stronger and lasting relationships between agencies.
AWAC Minimal Barrier Shelter
In the late 1990s, a provincial government program was created to address the growing shelter needs of homeless people during winter months. We were added an overnight minimal barrier shelter to our services, operating from 8:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m., November to March.
This program enabled us to support women with very difficult-to-manage behaviours - women who were generally very high or intoxicated, or who were experiencing acute mental health symptoms. Without the extra staff to closely monitor these women's safety, we would not have been able to shelter them.
A New Building — A New Era for AWAC
In August 2004 - with funding from a number of federal, provincial and other granting organizations - we moved all of our programs into a newly interior-renovated building. The outreach program and both shelter programs now operate year-round.
At the same time, we added a daytime/evening drop-in centre. Through the drop-in centre, we are building a base of activities and social opportunities for all interested women and girls. We also provide bathroom, shower, laundry, telephone and meal services to any woman or girl who comes to us in need.
Providing Skills for Independent Living
Many of the women were repeatedly returning to our services, unable to break free of the cycles they were trapped in. We wanted to provide these women with a safe environment, where they could learn the skills needed to live more independently.
Our supported housing program has been up and running since March 2007. We have a full house of eight tenants living on the second floor of our facility, supported by staff and community.
Over the years we have been fortunate to develop relationships with many incredible women. We have witnessed their amazing strength and humanity, in the face of circumstances that no one should ever have to endure. Some have moved on to a happier life; sadly, many have been lost.
We continue to open our doors to new faces and old, in the belief that each one has the possibility of a brighter future. Our hope is that, as a society, we will learn to do a much better job of caring for these women and girls who 'walk in the shadows.'