Globe and Mail

Shelternet.ca aims to reach women across the country

By AARON WHERRY
Tuesday, August 13, 2002 –  Print Edition, Page A18
The Globe and Mail

A new Web site will officially be launched in Toronto today in the hope of giving abused women from all walks of life access to much-needed information and help.

After two years of work, organizers will introduce Shelternet.ca at a news conference at the Royal York Hotel. The site will provide point-and-click access to information about shelters across the country so that women can find a refuge in their area quickly and discreetly.

"It is very difficult for women to find access to local services, so women are contacting sites out of their area," said Jan Richardson, managing director of Shelternet.ca and a former executive of the Women's Community House in London, Ont., for 17 years. "This is a new way for women to reach out. This site will make the sector more effective and more efficient."

The project, which cost approximately $250,000, is financed by the provincial and federal government and private sponsors. The Ontario Ministry of Citizenship provided funds for the technology and private-sector donors such as Mary Kay Cosmetics helped to cover operational costs.

According to Statistics Canada, 448 shelters across Canada reported that they had provided accommodation to 96,359 women and dependent children in 2000.

Only 25 per cent of shelters have Web sites, Ms. Richardson said, and one of the tools provided by Shelternet.ca is a free Web-site host service for shelters.

Carrie Hart, who was involved in the organization of the site, wishes Shelternet.ca could have come into existence a lot sooner. Eight years ago, Ms. Hart, a mother of two young boys, escaped an abusive marriage and began a four-year odyssey through shelters. Originally a successful radio reporter in Barrie, Ont., and Toronto, she now works as a sales director for Mary Kay Cosmetics and lives in London, Ont., with her sons, 11 and 13.

"On the site there are things that would have helped me eight years ago," she said.

As a professional woman, Ms. Hart says it was more difficult to come forward with her problem and seek help. "The more successful you are in your personal life, the tougher the shelter experience is," she said. "You really feel like you've failed. You don't want to give up your lifestyle."

Ms. Hart says the stigma felt by professional and middle-class women who are hesitant about visiting a shelter is a serious problem that may finally be addressed by Shelternet.ca.

"Professional women are afraid to go," she said. "The missing element has been corporate women. We are the ones who've been excluded. Shame is the most debilitating emotion. Now, in the privacy of your office or home, you can go and check it out."

Ms. Richardson says Shelternet.ca is working hard to ensure that the existence of the site is publicized to all women. Mary Kay Cosmetics has printed thousands of bookmarks to be distributed to customers, and shelters and libraries will be receiving promotional packages and educational information.

In Saskatchewan, a similar Web site called Hotpeachpages.org, operated by the Provincial Association of Transition Houses of Saskatchewan, offers helpful information for abused women and information on some shelters across the country, said Maria Hendrika, the executive director at Regina Transition Women's Society. "It's amazing how many people don't know shelters exist or where they are.

"[Shelternet.ca] is going to increase public awareness . . . information is never a bad thing."

The organizers of Shelternet.ca also made an effort to contact women's groups in rural communities to address the potential lack of home Internet access in those areas. While home Internet access may not be prevalent in rural areas, Ms. Richardson says women can access the site at places such as libraries and schools.

Natalie, a shelter worker in Sturgeon Falls, Ont., says her facility makes an effort to reach rural residents. "We try and target the rural community. We get a lot of 'Oh, I didn't know you were there.' "

But despite problems publicizing facilities, Natalie says the shelter is always busy and often full to capacity. "We never turn people away, we always find them a place to go."

Amanda Dale, director of advocacy and communication with the YWCA of greater Toronto, which has three shelters in the Toronto area, says informing the public is only part of the problem.

"We know a surprisingly small percentage of women who are abused seek assistance through the shelter system," she said. "But we also know our shelters are full."

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