(First published in the Airdrie Echo on Aug 5, 2015)
On a Sunday morning three months ago, a woman screamed for help as a man punched her repeatedly in their parked car outside of Safeway on Main.
People walked by, ignoring the violence on their way to the grocery store where they continued on with their day.
But one passerby didn’t just walk away.
Airdrie’s Crystal Boys looked into the woman’s eyes and saw a reflection of herself years prior, when she ran into a Calgary store asking for someone, anyone, to call 9-1-1.
The store employee questioned her, but before she could explain the complex nature of a domestically abusive relationship, the father of her first child grabbed her by the hair and dragged her out of the store screaming.
Her cries went unanswered.
The faces of four men in the store watching her while standing idle are etched into her memory as she was forcibly taken back into the very situation she was trying to escape.
“I remember that the most because it was devastating,” said Boys. “I was so hurt that nobody wanted to help me.
“I thought, am I worth nothing to anybody?”
The feeling of worthlessness returned again in that Safeway parking lot as people walked by this woman.
“Nobody stopped,” said Boys. “Nobody even batted an eye and she was screaming while he was hitting her over and over and over again.”
Remembering how much she wished for someone to dial three simple numbers, Boys stood at a safe distance and stared right in the man’s eyes as she talked with police.
The man knew she had called and Boys had wanted him to know.
Both the woman and man fled the scene shortly before the cops arrived, and Boys took to the Airdrie Mom’s Facebook page to share her experience.
Within no time Boys had connected with Tara Molina, Mariah Pima and Kasey Pearson to discuss problems of domestic violence and the fact that Airdrie does not have a women’s shelter.
“We discussed how Strathmore has a women’s shelter and that’s pretty strange considering we don’t,” said Molina. “We’re one of the only communities of our size that doesn’t have a shelter.”
Prior to this year’s provincial election, the group also enlisted now Wildrose MLA for Airdrie Angela Pitt as a director. Pitt has since been named shadow minister for the Ministry for the Status of Women and Ministry of Human Services.
From that initial Facebook post sprouted the foundation for Airdrie P.O.W.E.R. (Protecting Our Women with Emergency Resources), an organization determined to fund and support the first women’s shelter in the rapidly growing city.
“The shelter was pivotal in my recovery and getting out safe and starting over,” said Boys. “The thought of Airdrie not having somewhere for our women or people to go to, its been bothering me for some time.”
Victims of domestic violence in Airdrie do have access to services like the Airdrie and District Victims Assistance Society (ADVAS), which get most of their referrals from the RCMP.
ADVAS connects victims to the resources they need, but the organization doesn’t handle civil or family court related issues like a shelter would.
“Some of those resources are lacking in the community so we have to look outside Airdrie to be able to facilitate that need,” said Angela Wright, court coordinator and incoming executive director for ADVAS.
“We are filling that gap with resources but it’s a resource that is outside of the community.”
Brenda Hume, executive director of Community Links, said the partner agencies in Airdrie, such as the domestic violence court, RCMP, ADVAS, Community Links and the food bank, have connected to ensure an efficient process
“There’s a wonderful, integrated, holistic support system in Airdrie,” said Hume. “[A shelter] would definitely relieve some of the barriers that some of our victims of family violence are facing in the community.”
Boys said the shelter was always in the back of her mind and knowing that service was available in her own community of Calgary gave her the confidence to leave.
If the abuse had happened in Airdrie, she said, her life would have been much different.
“I wouldn’t have gone,” said Boys. “I didn’t lose hope because I knew I had somewhere to go.”
Airdrie P.O.W.E.R. reached out to shelters in Calgary to inquire if taking residents from Airdrie was even a viable option and received information that most were at capacity. The information has made the group more determined.
“They can’t take any more people, so there is nowhere to turn,” said Molina. “We need something in our own backyard.”
According to the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters, 39 women from Airdrie connected with shelters between April 1, 2010 and March 31, 2015. Twenty-nine of those were admitted.
Cochrane was the next highest community represented, with 13 connections and five admissions.
However, providing personal information is not required when visiting a shelter and only 10 per cent of women who are domestically abused do.
“That’s only representing a very, very small amount of the overall people using the Calgary shelter from Airdrie,” said Molina. “You don’t call with pride to a women’s shelter and say ‘I am so-and-so, here is my address.’”
Though a summary policing report for 2014 suggested the number of domestic violence calls in Airdrie was on a decline after years of steady rising, RCMP told City council on July 6 that the numbers have so far doubled this year when compared to 2014.
In 2012, City staff presented council with a report about the viability of a local shelter.
At the time of the report, staff said the minimum operating costs per year to provide shelter support was about $1.5 million.
Mayor Peter Brown requested an update to the 2012 report after hearing domestic violence was on the rise on July 6.
He told the Airdrie Echo last week that “Our community, and the numbers, didn’t support having [a shelter] in the community, but obviously we’re all very concerned with the rise in [domestic violence] numbers.”
Brown said he couldn’t comment further on whether a shelter is needed until he receives the report.
Wanting to be a part of the community and holistic chain mentioned by Hume, Airdrie P.O.W.E.R. has met with the various partner agencies including the City.
After an insightful meeting with Clay Aragon, of the City’s social planning unit, the group learned how to become a business and gain charity status.
“Airdrie P.O.W.E.R. is an example of a group of really interested and passionate individuals who have come together and have a particular vision in mind,” said Aragon.
Since a stay in an emergency shelter is limited to 21 days, another challenge facing the group, City and Province when tackling the issue of domestic violence is second phase housing.
“Addressing domestic violence is a community-wide issue so there has to be some investment from the government [all the way] to the community to make it happen,” said Aragon.
In early July, staff at Airdrie Housing Limited, which provides affordable housing for all ages, told the Airdrie Echo the organization currently has a waiting list.
It’s no surprise to Pitt.
“Our population has so quickly grown in the past 10 years and so many issues come with that,” said Pitt who will be taking the Airdrie P.O.W.E.R. plan to the Legislature in the fall.
Pitt said the NDP mini-budget announced increased funding in human services specifically for second stage housing, which Pitt hopes can be used in Airdrie to make a shelter viable.
“This group is so unique because it’s women helping women,” said Pitt.
“My role with the second stage housing is really an opportunity to give women a hand up instead of just a hand out.”
In the process of gaining charity status, Airdrie P.O.W.E.R. needs community support and that starts with awareness and sharing of its Airdrie Women’s Shelter Campaign Facebook page, as well as donations, said Molina.
“I think it’s important for people to know that we’re not just a bunch of women who see this as something that is cool and trendy to do,” said Molina. “We really care about this cause because we have experience first hand with it.”
The women of Airdrie P.O.W.E.R. have realized they can’t wait around hoping a shelter will one day be built.
“We have to be serious and make our own tracks and build our own building. [That] seems to be the only thing that will make this happen,” said Molina. “We’re not going to fail, we’re going to keep going and at the end of the day, at least there’s some hope.”
And hope is what Boys dreams will continue on in the community, as the reality of a shelter is years in the distance.
In her mind she returns to that day outside of Safeway, but people are no longer walking by.
They are watching and this man sees they are watching and knows he can’t get away with his violence.
“You can let that girl know that somebody does care,” said Boys.
“I can’t imagine being hopeless and I don’t want one single woman in Airdrie to be hopeless.”