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A new alternative for Watson Lake women

For eight years, Judy Dunn has watched Watson Lake women seek refuge at the Help and Hope for Families Society shelter.

For eight years, Judy Dunn has watched Watson Lake women seek refuge at the Help and Hope for Families Society shelter.

But each time, after 30 days, she’s watched most of those women go back to the situation they tried to escape.

“What was their alternative?” she asked, rhetori cally. “They always ended up going back.”

Now, they won’t have to.

With federal and territorial funding - and a lot of community support - the Watson Lake women’s shelter has opened second-stage housing for women who want to change their lives.

An addition of four new, fully equipped and furnished apartments - two for single women and two for mothers with kids - has extended that 30-day stay to a full year.

And programming has been expanded too.

Life skills coaching for everything from banking to going back to school will be offered to women who are serious about facing a new life on their own, said Dunn.

As well, the extra space has allowed a lot more programming for women of the community at large, including Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, parenting courses and traditional healing, added executive director Caron Statham.

“It’s been needed for quite some time,” said Dunn.

And, less than two months after the new apartments opened, they are filling up.

“Here it is so darn difficult to get into Yukon Housing,” said Dunn. “Sometimes people have had to wait months and months to get into one of the facilities, the houses - if they’re lucky enough to get in. That was one of the reasons, too, for some of these women that needed a place right now, that we could put that out there.”

But there could be reasons why the apartments haven’t filled up sooner, said Statham.

“A lot of women that come in here may have drug and alcohol issues,” she said.

The shelter and new second-stage housing are strictly drug and alcohol free.

“We have an apartment building here that’s just horrific,” she said of one of Watson Lake’s only other options for women without a place to stay. “It’s just drinking and drugging going on and a lot of the women have stayed there and it’s horrible for the kids.

“This way, they have a place where they can stay where there’s no drinking and drugs allowed and it’s just secure. They can have that feeling of safety. And that’s huge.”

Statham only arrived in Watson Lake in November and she is still taken aback by the rates of domestic violence and the lack of security for women and children in the small town.

“The violence in this community is really staggering,” she said. “It’s astonishing just to see what’s going on.

“In June, we had, like, 13 women come through and stay at different times, and with children.

“That’s a lot for a small community in one month. We had 67 crisis calls in just June and 229 support calls. That’s pretty big.”

And while Statham has been working at the shelter for less than a year, she has already seen community faith in the system go from bad to worse.

Statham was there on the day of the internal adjudication board hearing for the two RCMP officers accused of raping a nurse in the town back in March 2009.

While off-duty, but after the nurse drank copious amounts of alcohol and smoked marijuana, the officers engaged in three-way sex with her.

Both officer Graham Belak and Shawn McLaughlin were acquitted of sexual assault in Yukon Supreme Court in March 2010, but the RCMP promised a disciplinary hearing to review the officers’ conduct and decide whether any conditions or reprimands would be administered by the force.

The hearing, held in June, lasted less than two hours.

The former nurse who laid the original charges refused to appear, and no other witnesses or evidence was presented to review the officers’ behaviour.

“Everybody was really upset,” said Statham. “The woman was back on trial again and it wasn’t really about (the officers); it was about, ‘How come she wasn’t there?’

“The women I have spoken to in the community (have said) that they’re not feeling safe. It was a huge letdown for them, the women of the community. So it’s not a good. Things aren’t great right now. It’s going to take a while.

“And I know there’s a lot of really good police officers in this community that really care and, unfortunately, they’ve come in after this has all happened and, you know, it’s extremely tough for them. I don’t envy them, this job of trying to rebuild the bridges. It really is hard.”

But the cops have been among the many who have helped expand this essential service at the shelter.

“They have been here whenever we’ve needed them,” she said. “There’s never been any problems. They even came and donated a bunch of bikes on Friday for us.”

And without the support of so many community members, the second-stage housing, or transition home at the shelter would have never happened, said Statham, mentioning local businesses who donated building supplies, the local gentleman who dropped off a truckload of gravel, the local builder who built the addition and local residents who were very generous with their time, helping with whatever needed to be done.

Because of this, the shelter is hosting an appreciation event on Wednesday.

“Apparently, at the last opening, a lot of the local people didn’t get thanked for all their contributions that they did,” Statham said. It was held before she took the job in the southern Yukon town. A plaque will be dedicated as a thank you to everybody and to commemorate the hard work that they did. “We’re really appreciative.”

For Dunn, who has been working at the shelter longer than any other staff member, there are few words to describe how happy she is to see this addition.

“I’ve seen a lot of people coming and going through the house,” she said.

She never thought she would see the day when second stage housing was introduced to the shelter, she added.

“I kind of thought that I might have been retired by that time,” she said laughing. “But I’m really glad to see it, from start to finish. It’s been quite a good feeling to see something that will be very useful in the community for these women that really are wanting to start a new life.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at