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Fort McMurray community worker Joanne Roberts began her part of a rotating hunger strike Sun., Aug. 15. The protesters say they won't stop until they get provincial money for a badly needed women's shelter in the oil-sands boomtown. (The Globe and Mail)
Fort McMurray community worker Joanne Roberts began her part of a rotating hunger strike Sun., Aug. 15. The protesters say they won't stop until they get provincial money for a badly needed women's shelter in the oil-sands boomtown. (The Globe and Mail)

Hunger strikers seek money for women's shelter in Fort McMurray Add to ...

When Fort McMurray's only women's shelter was built nearly 30 years ago, the city had a population of about 30,000 and oil sands production was in its infancy.

Much has changed. Development has driven the community's population to roughly triple that number. The shelter, known as Unity House, has been overrun by the growth.

It has 35 beds, which staff say are almost invariably full. Amenities are stretched - there is just one washer and dryer, for example, in the entire facility. There are up to six beds in each room. Last year, the aging shelter, which staff say needs a lot of repairs, turned away 400 women and all the children they might have brought with them. Many simply returned to the homes where their abuse took place.

"It's just a horrible situation all the way around. Fort McMurray has grown so fast that the infrastructure all around the community is just trying to keep up with it. Our shelter is one of the victims of that," said Mary-Ellen Proctor, executive director of the Fort McMurray Family Crisis Society, which runs the shelter.

She's leading a push for a new, $50-million facility, one with 50 suites - capable of accommodating women and their children - and surge space. Ms. Proctor figures she'll need $35-million in provincial and federal funding. To drum up attention, she has been on a three-week hunger strike that wrapped up Sunday, but will continue with other participants: local oil-sands community worker Joanne Roberts took over the fast Sunday and other women have pledged to follow suit until the money is found.



In some of the cases, they're ending up staying at the home in that abusive situation. It would be great to have a larger shelter. Brad Agotnes, Victims Services




"We can't hold off on this. We need to build this now," said Ms. Proctor, who initially tried to survive only on water. However, on the advice of her doctor, she added molasses and lemon juice to her diet.

Among those supportive of her push are local police. When the RCMP need to remove a victim of domestic violence from a home, they have two options: short-term funding for a hotel room, or Unity House. The former runs out after a night or two, while about half the time there's no room at the latter, said Brad Agotnes of Victims Services, which is funded by the wealthy municipality but is part of the local RCMP detachment.

"In some of the cases, they're ending up staying at the home in that abusive situation. It would be great to have a larger shelter," Mr. Agotnes said. "It's very hard for us to get them to alternative forms of housing."

Among those living in Unity House is Candice, a 63-year-old victim of elder abuse who asked that her last name not be published. RCMP took her to Unity House nine months ago. She remains there, awaiting a spot in a long-term-care home.

"They definitely need a new building. They need more space for the clients, who need the homes. The building just needs to be upgraded. It is a requirement that is direly needed in this city," the woman said.

The province has grown rich off the oil boom and is being asked to help deal with the need the boom has created. In 2008-2009, royalties from the oil sands (which overwhelmingly lie in Wood Buffalo, the municipality that includes Fort McMurray) contributed $2.9-billion to the province.

Alberta has taken steps to keep up with social programs. Provincial operational funding for women's shelters has spiked 73 per cent since 2004-2005, to $26-million last year. Unity House already receives about $1.5-million in annual provincial funding. When the province added funding for 79 beds in 2008, Unity House got the largest increase.

To build its new centre, Ms. Proctor's group is preparing an application to Alberta Housing, which will dole out $188-million in capital-project funding this year. Ms. Proctor said the ministry encouraged her to apply, but whether she'll get money appears unclear: Ministry spokeswoman Barbra Korol said the funding is for permanent housing for low- and middle-income families, "not so much shelters."

The group could also seek federal capital funding through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation's Shelter Enhancement Program. It will also need to apply to Alberta's Ministry of Children and Youth Services, which provides ongoing funding for its 35 beds and would need to approve an increase to 50 beds.

It hasn't yet made a formal application to either ministry; Ms. Proctor said the applications will be submitted next month.

Alberta has 680 emergency beds scattered across about four dozen women's shelters, according to the Alberta Council of Women's Shelters. Of those, 96 beds lack permanent funding. Alberta has the second-highest reported rate of domestic violence among Canada's provinces, after Saskatchewan.

"From our perspective, there's a need" for a new shelter, said Jan Reimer, director of the ACWS and a former Edmonton mayor. "Certainly there's a strong need for shelters all over the province, but as always Fort McMurray is a unique case."

Editor's Note: The original newspaper version of this article and an earlier online version contained incorrect information about the amount of royalties Alberta receives from the oil sands and about how it ranks among provinces in terms of the reported rate of domestic violence. This online version has been corrected.

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