The dream of a 24/7 safe haven for women in Winnipeg who have been exploited and subjected to violence, or have no home, is coming true.
For 40 years, advocates faced many hurdles, including funding denials, but efforts paid off when Velma’s House opened at 154 Sherbrook St. last week, filling a gap in the city’s care network.
"The idea for a 24/7 safe space came from these pioneers who developed a program called Power back in the ‘80s," said program manager Isabel Daniels.
"Throughout the last 40 years, there have been various people who have been advocating for a 24/7 safe space."
Velma’s House is named after the late Velma Orvis, an elder who provided cultural supports and services for exploited women.
"She gave endless love to the community," Daniels said.
"Our safe space is filled with patch quilts and afghan blankets, flowers and pictures, slippers and shawls for women to wear when they’re here.
Women can take a shower, get a meal, clean clothes and hygiene products, and bus tokens. They can also connect to a welfare worker.
Daniels has been advocating for vulnerable and exploited women for nearly a decade, after the slaying of her niece Nicole Daniels in 2009, and the unsolved killing of her best friend, Cara Lynn Hiebert, in 2011, she said.
Daniels, who was trafficked as a child, joined an advisory committee for a new safe place about eight years ago, but funding was not renewed, and the team dissolved.
Last year, Velma’s House applied for funding earmarked for missing and murdered Indigenous women, but the provincial and federal governments denied their request.
"We didn’t qualify for funds because they didn’t see women that were victims of street violence as family violence," Daniels said. "So we don’t qualify for domestic violence funds."
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, opened up an opportunity. As other support spaces closed, Winnipeg NDP MP Leah Gazan saw a chance for COVID-related funding, and the group renewed its proposal in March.
Daniels said there was no funding specifically for sexually exploited adults — most resources are set aside for youth. Daniels noted youth who have aged out of provincial care represent the largest portion of the city’s homeless population.
"There’s a huge gap because a lot of services get cut off to these kids once they turn 18," she said.
"A lot of people often think that this is a choice that people make, but when you’re stuck and you’re entrenched and you face barriers, saying you can’t go here and you can’t go there, it puts you at higher risk."
So Daniels brought together an advisory team made up of survivors of sexual exploitation, violence and homelessness to spearhead the new space.
"Over the last year, these women have taken things from their homes, they have collected, housed and furnished, they stocked our supply room with clothing," she said.
Daniels said there were no specific supports for women in the West End; the only comparable resource in the province is Sage House in the North End.
"We’ve had a warm welcome from the West Broadway neighbourhood and they’re super excited to have a safe space like this located on this end of the city."
Velma’s House is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on a first-come, first-served basis. Attendees do not need to be sober to access the space. Since it opened March 15, Daniels said, the house has reached COVID-safe capacity every day.
They hope to open "stabilization beds" where women can stay while in recovery.
"As we build our staff team, we’ll keep extending our hours… until we get to that 24/7 mark," she said.
People who are interested can make a donation at Ka Ni Kanichihk’s website and specify that it is for Velma’s House.
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.