Red Door Eschews Location Secrecy in Favour of Public Support
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Red Door Eschews Location Secrecy in Favour of Public Support

Family and women's shelters typically operate discreetly to protect clients from violent ex-partners. What happens when a shelter needs public support for a new building?

Rendering of Red Door’s new building. Photo courtesy of Hilditch Architect.

South Riverdale’s Red Door Family Shelter is home to dozens of families in need. Every night, about 43 of them stay in the shelter’s 23 rooms.

But living with these families in the walls of the 60-year-old building is toxic mold, threatening the quality of air. A boiler, too, sits long past its official life cycle. Kids do homework crammed into the School Age room, a small space void of natural light. There are no quiet or private spaces for clients to reflect on or work through any personal troubles that may have lead them to the shelter in the first place.

In a call out to the community for support, staff at Red Door describe the shelter as “old, institutional, and depressing.”

Red Door needs a new building—and thanks to its staff’s rallying efforts, it’s getting one.

But the methods behind the shelter’s success are being questioned.

Getting funding for the new 1,800-square-metre building wasn’t an easy task. Faced with shuttering the facility, the oldest and one of the only family shelters in Toronto, Red Door sought support from the community, and lobbied developers and councillors for a new building—what any business or service would do if they needed funds for new infrastructure.

But Red Door isn’t like any other service. It’s a refuge for women and families, mostly single mothers and their children who are fleeing domestic violence. It’s a safe space where those who are vulnerable don’t have to worry about being found by their abusers. Such shelters (there are 13 of them in Toronto) typically operate discreetly, tucked away in unmarked locations around the city.

While the secrecy helps to protect clients, it poses a problem when it comes to attracting funders for revitalization projects, expansions, and new programs.

Red Door was able to overcome its funding shortfalls by drawing attention to the good work the shelter does in the community, and highlighting what it needs to continue doing that work. It paid off: the City of Toronto has agreed to fund the construction of a new building for Red Door, while Harhay Construction oversees its development. The building will reside inside a mixed-use development complex and combine community services, retail, and condos on the same site. Construction is set to begin by the end of the year. Meanwhile, Red Door is still campaigning to raise $3 million for equipment, furnishings and services at the new shelter.

But this good-news story could have its setbacks. While heightened attention on the shelter has inspired an outpouring of community support and newfound finances, it also risks drawing attention from the abusers Red Door clients are trying to flee.

When Olay Omodara left Nigeria in 2011, Red Door became her and her two-year-old son Isaiah’s first home in Canada. During their six-month stay at the shelter, staff helped Omodara upgrade her education, enrol in the Homeward Bound housing program, and eventually land a job with CIBC.

At Red Door, Omodara never had to worry about being discovered by a violent ex-partner, but she empathizes with the many women there who did—after all, that’s the main reason she left Nigeria.

Omodara’s ex-partner, whom she was never married to, was trying to take Isaiah from her. She kept moving around the country, but said Isaiah’s father would always track her down. “The day he lays his hands on me, I thought, I’m a dead woman,” said Omodara. “I imagine if he was living in Canada, I wouldn’t feel comfortable with him walking down the street and knowing where I was living.”

But not everyone has the Atlantic Ocean separating them from an abuser or stalker.

“It’s a real risk,” says Heather Stewart, project officer at the Canadian Network of Women’s Shelters and Transition Houses, pointing out that women who have experienced abuse go to shelters that cater to victims of violence specifically because they are under threat. “That’s the main motivation behind most shelters’ decisions to keep their locations secret: these women are often being pursued or looked for by their exes.”

While Stewart says that keeping the location of women’s and family shelters secret is standard practice, it’s not the only option for ensuring clients’ well-being. “It’s not the norm,” she says, “but when shelters feel they have enough resources and support in the community, and the right safety mechanisms in place, they may choose to make their location public.”

And certainly, going public with a shelter’s location is common during capital campaigns, like the one Red Door launched. “It’s what they have to do because they need that community support,” says Stewart.

In her book Hard Knocks: Domestic Violence and the Psychology of Story Telling, Janice Haaken unpacks the cases for and against keeping the locations of women’s shelters secret. Clients’ safety is at the heart of the pro-secrecy model, but she points out that the full-disclosure approach can benefit clients, too.

In a study of shelter practices across the United States, Haaken, a psychologist and social justice activist, explains that “[for] many respondents, the question of whether to publish the location was associated with women being forced into ‘hiding,” as well as the broader issue of political invisibility.'” She also notes concerns around “keeping the problem of domestic abuse ‘behind closed doors,’ suggesting that shelters may reproduce some aspects of the battered woman’s experience of isolation.”

Ultimately, it’s up to each shelter to assess how disclosing its locale may harm or benefit its clientele. “The policy varies from shelter to shelter—there’s no standard imposed,” says Stewart, emphasizing that whether or not the location is public, “there has to always be that mechanism in place to sort out what you do when someone comes to the door that should not be there. Every shelter has to deal with that reality.”

For Red Door, leaving the shelter in its current state was not an option, and rallying support for a new building meant shining a spotlight on vulnerable women and families. While Carol Latchford, director of client services at Red Door, admits “there’s always a risk when you’re housing people escaping violent situations,” she says the tangible benefits from the Save the Red Door campaign outweigh any potential risks for clients. “We had so much support,” says Latchford. “That’s what saved us.”