With the tragic situation in Fort McMurray forcing nearly 90,000 out of their homes to potentially never return, the concept of homelessness is perhaps more widely felt than ever for Albertans.

On Thursday, May 5, the YWCA hosted the 9th annual YWCA KEEP A ROOF OVER THEIR HEADS® fundraising event. Registered participants, who have been fundraising for weeks, learned about the barriers women experiencing homelessness face, followed by spending the night on a cot in our former gymnasium turned winter shelter.

Last year, the YWCA served 1,552 women and their children in one of its emergency shelter, transitional and supportive housing programs. 658 of those were women who accessed the YWCA Winter Emergency Response program from November to April. The program was put in place four years ago to prevent freezing deaths and provide a safe place to sleep for women experiencing homelessness. YWCA KEEP A ROOF OVER THEIR HEADS® replicates the experiences of the winter shelter clients.

Participants lined up outside prior to the event; waiting in line ups is common in the homeless experience. They proceeded through bag check, then through the intake forms with YWCA staff. The questions on the form are intimate – Have you taken any drugs or alcohol today? Where did you sleep last night? Are you pregnant?

The experience is meant to push participants out of their comfort zone, create empathy and understanding and ultimately ignite a passion for change.

“I strongly believe that supporting women generates an excellent social return on investment – supporting a woman improves the fate of not only the woman, but also her family which leads to stronger communities,” says event participant and Top Fundraiser Wanda Rumble. “I was motivated to participate because I fear the current economy is negatively impacting fundraising for local causes.”

This year’s event featured an expert panel facilitated by Donna McElligott, CBC Radio host, on the unique aspects related to women’s homelessness. Panelists were Kim O’Brien, Executive Director of Horizon Housing Society, Katrina Milaney PhD, Assistant Professor of Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies at the University of Calgary and Heather Morley, Director of Client Services at the YWCA. The panel captivated the audience with their comprehensive and complementary perspectives.

“In Canada, women make up a significant and growing percentage of the homeless population, yet most research and literature on homelessness has focused on men’s experience of homelessness,” says Heather Morley. “Women are at an increased risk of violence, abuse and victimization if staying on the streets or in mixed gender shelters.”

Katrina Milaney PhD spoke to the harm caused when we design programs for the majority. “When we don’t understand an issue, we make assumptions and we paint people with the same brush. Approaches for men don’t translate directly for women. We need different approaches.”

Kim O’Brien highlighted ‘housing first’ and getting ahead of the housing supply as solutions. Countries with a robust continuum of housing of all types have virtually no homelessness. Calgary has some complexities that don’t exist in some other places such as high rents and high income gaps, which contribute to our high rate of homelessness. “Now is the time to invest in and welcome affordable housing as a key form of infrastructure in our communities,” Kim reiterates.

Following the evening program, participants prepped their cots for ‘lights out’ at 11:00 p.m. and settled down to spend the night in the YWCA shelter; though the lights in a shelter are never fully dimmed as staff need to be able to see at all times if anyone requires assistance. Participants filed out early in the morning, heavy-eyed and achy, with a new perspective and understanding of women’s homelessness.