“Suddenly, you find yourself at the bottom rung of the ladder ... You wouldn’t think this could happen to you, then it does.”
Faith was in her early 50s by the time she decided to leave her husband. She had suffered through decades of physical and emotional abuse before saying ‘no more’ — but that’s not something she talks freely about.
Her eyes meet the floor when she describes the life she was forced to give up: not just one where a man hurt her, but one where he loved her. One where she was financially dependent; one where her family was held together by fraying strings. Finally, she let go.
Faith’s choice is one that countless women have had to make before her, but for those who have never been in her shoes, it’s common to see just one clear option: leave the abuser. What many don’t realize is that, for women mid-life, leaving that abuser could mean leaving all financial security at an age when most are retiring. It could mean leaving a house with no funds to pay rent, and leaving a family with no security to provide.
“I was brought up with strong ethics, and taught to work hard. But, sometimes, outside things happen beyond your control and it has a domino effect,” says Faith. “Suddenly, you find yourself at the bottom rung of the ladder and you’re fully responsible for that. You wouldn’t think this could happen to you, then it does.”
But when it does happen, women like Faith don’t have to go it alone, thanks to the efforts of the Victoria Women’s Transition House Society and Centre for Abused Women. In addition to the 24-hour crisis line, safe space and Harrison House — a three-year home for abused senior women to get back on their feet — the society has a new offering this year: the S.A.F.E. Program (Self-sufficiency and Assets through Financial Education), designed to give women back their financial independence and their future.
“Oftentimes these women are stuck in the past, and thinking about what’s been lost, but the goal of a program like this is to get them thinking about their savings and their future,” says Joan Feyrer, S.A.F.E. Program coordinator. “What we’ve seen is that the women who do go through the program blossom in a way that even they didn’t expect.”
The program is run specifically for women residing in Harrison House, and is stretched over the course of two years. For the first six months, the women work with financial advisors and mentors to develop a goal-setting “path” that they will use for the next 18 months. They set out their plans to save at least $30 each month and attend monthly financial strategy meetings and workshops. By the end of the program, the society will match the women at least one-to-one for every dollar saved.
On the heels of Financial Literacy Week, which runs until Nov. 5, the S.A.F.E. Program is kicking off its own efforts to engage women in the process of increasing financial literacy and math skills to better their economic situation. They are calling for community members to “sponsor” a woman by pledging to donate an amount — such as $5 a week — towards her S.A.F.E. goals.
“It’s so easy for us to take things for granted when we have what we need,” says Feyrer. “While $5 for us could be a coffee out, to these women it will mean the down payment they can put towards rent when they leave Harrison House, or money towards a computer or a home business.”
The society launched an 18-month pilot of the S.A.F.E. Program in 2009 that saw 12 women in Harrison House set out specific plans — their money had to be put towards approved long-term goals to be eligible — and then save $50 a month, even through their often-meagre welfare cheques. Then, thanks to outside community grants, the program was able to match these women three-to-one. It’s a lofty goal now that the program is in its first official year, but as the women launch from “path” stage to “savings” stage, Feyrer and the society are seeking outside help to bolster the women’s savings.
“It’s quite wonderful what a little money will do, and learning that financial restraint can be put towards very important goals. We have seen many generous grants from the community, including some individual donors, businesses and church groups,” says Feyrer. “What we’d really like to see is an ability to raise the savings to at least two-to-one for these women, who are working so hard to save what few pennies they have.”
Currently, the program has only enough funding to allow 15 of the 22 women at Harrison House to partake. A match of one-to-one costs more than $8,000, which the group has secured. A three-to-one match would take more than $24,000.
Janice Nelson is chair of the Evangelical Lutheran Women’s Group, out of the Lutheran Church of the Cross of Victoria. While the Transition Society and the programs are secular, the church group has played a dramatic role in raising funds for the S.A.F.E. Program, including a recent dinner event which saw $1,300 injected into the program and individual sponsorship from the women’s group of more than $600.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize how prevalent abuse is in our community, but it affects all of us, even if we don’t realize it,” says Nelson. “It’s always difficult trying to be supportive, but at the same time respectful of the fact that people aren’t always ready to embrace that help. It takes a lot of courage to reach out.”
Harrison House is open to women 45 and older, who have been out of their abusive relationship for at least a year and have addressed all addictions or mental health issues.
Faith, who stayed at the house and completed the pilot S.A.F.E. Program, says the program changed the way she felt about her potential. She is now running her own business, and has been entirely independent “and empowered” for the last few years.
“I don’t think I would be where I am now if it wasn’t for that head start of the S.A.F.E. Program,” she says with tears in her eyes. “I wish I could tell all women who are where I was that it doesn’t have to be that way, and it’s not hopeless. When you reach out, there will be a hand there reaching back for you. You can find your path back. And you’ll find happiness again.” M
For more information on the Victoria Women’s Transition Society and the S.A.F.E. Program, visit transitionhouse.net.