Where people spend Christmas when the unspeakable happens

Abused, unwanted and homeless for the holidays


You don't end up spending Christmas in a shelter unless something has gone horribly wrong in your life.

The women and children at the Qimaavik Transitional Home in Apex, known to most people as the women's shelter, have come here to escape violence in the home, whether emotional, verbal, physical or sexual.

Some are from Iqaluit itself, but many of the 21 people the shelter can hold – and it's full right now – come from other communities throughout Nunavut.

"They've lost a part of themselves through sustained abuse," Qimaavik director Caroline Anawak explains. "They're hurting. They're missing their homes, their parents and siblings, everything that's familiar to them. But they're wonderful people under all of this." And since most of the women at the shelter have bought children with them, they know they have to keep on going for the sake of their kids.

The children and their mothers "need all the help they can get," Anawak says. "Because these kids are Nunavut's future – and which way they go will be determined by Nunavut's response to them, and to the violence they have experienced."

In some ways it's even harder at the Salvation Army Oqota Shelter in Iqaluit's lower-base neighbourhood, commonly called the men's shelter.

There, the men – 18 of them right now, which means this shelter too is running at full capacity – are even more alone, away from their families and without children to keep them more outwardly focused.

Often they have been cast out by family members, friends and even whole communities who have grown weary of dealing with the fallout of physical, mental, emotional or social problems the men have not been able to overcome.

"Some are mentally challenged," says Douglas Cox, the Oqota shelter's director. Others are struggling with mental health illnesses, or drug or alcohol addictions, sometimes as the result of abuses suffered as children.

Some can't find work because of physical challenges resulting from illness or injury.

Many have been in and out of prison, so that the shelter for them, can at times even seem a step up.

"They've been shunned from their home towns," Cox says. Iqaluit, he asserts, has become the dumping zone for other communities' problems. And the shelter can be the dumping zone for Iqaluit's problems.

But whatever these men's issues, Cox sees their humanity. Most weeks he's at the shelter every day, and 12- or 13-hour days are not uncommon. More often than not he'll provide bread or cereal for breakfast, or soup for supper, with money from his own pocket.

He'll be there on Christmas Day too, helping folks from the Pentecostal Church serve the Christmas dinner they donate every year to the men at the shelter, and to hand out the warm winter socks the church people offer every year as Christmas presents.

Anawak will be at Qimaavik too. "Our job," she says, "is to try to keep things light and interesting. To take the focus away from the residents' problems for a few hours, and to help them feel that Christmas is possible."

She adds, "we're a family here. There are all kinds of families, and this is one too, one big family."

If the women and children at Qimaavik can lack the emotional vocabulary, as Anawak describes it, to talk about their lives and their feelings, for the men at Oqota, that vocabulary seems almost nonexistent.

Men don't cry, the all-too-common adage says. They aren't supposed to get emotional about Christmas.

Not entirely true. They can cry when they're drunk – and many do. And they're allowed to get angry. That's an acceptable male emotion, often one they've learned by parental example.

But when Oqota shelter worker Stacy Kent put up the Christmas tree this year then left the room for a moment, she came back to find four of the residents vying with one another to add the decorations.

Their efforts were awkward, she says. They were even being stoically macho about it. But it's as emotionally expressive as some of them can get with one another.

Qimmavik is the bigger operation, open day and night, and with a meal program and daycare and educational facilities for the children, and counseling for the women.

Both zoning and funding issues demand the Oqota shelter close during the day, however. The men have to be out of the shelter by 8:30 in the morning, and are not allowed back in until 5 p.m.

Cox dreams of the day when he will be able to offer some daytime programming that might help the men deal with their issues and get back on their feet.

But for now he'd be happy just to be able to give them breakfast regularly. "So that what's on your mind when you leave the shelter," he says, "is not, ‘where can I get something to eat?' but ‘where can I find work'."

Both the men's and the women's facilities receive basic government support to keep functioning, with extra help from the YWCA for the women's shelter and from the Salvation Army for the men.

But both facilities depend on the generosity of the community to help out with basic needs, especially at Christmas, the time of the year when the gap between "what should be" and "what is" can seem most acute.

And the community responds, with donations of food and used clothing, sometimes daily, especially around this time of year.

The Salvation Army also collects money in its annual Christmas Kettle Drive, alternating between Northmart and Arctic Ventures.

Cox is quick to thank everyone who donates, both to the kettle and by bringing food and clothing around. The donations also help the shelter run a year round food bank as a separate enterprise for those in need in the community.

This Christmas, with kids at Qimmavik ranging in age from two months to 14 years, Anawak says there is also a need for donated toys and other presents for all ages.

"If anybody wants to drop by with gifts we'd be happy to accept them," she says. "That hand of generosity, it's very important to the people at the shelter. It means so much to them to know that people are thinking about them."

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