25 years of healing at Harmony House

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Since 1987, the Ottawa shelter has helped women and children recover from domestic abuse and rebuild their lives, writes Samantha Ball.

When Jennifer* arrived at Ottawa’s Harmony House, she felt hopeless and petrified. She had been stalked and tormented by two former partners, the fathers of her children. And when her house was broken into, she no longer felt safe and turned to Harmony House for help.

Harmony House is a second-stage shelter (a longer-term living option, rather than a crisis or emergency shelter), providing safe, affordable transitional housing for women and children who are survivors of violence. For up to a year, families live in their own apartment and run their own household. Harmony House is the only such shelter in Ottawa.

And Jennifer says the staff, programming, and the support of other women at Harmony House have all helped her get to a place where she is considering going back to work and preparing to live on her own.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without Harmony House.”

And Jennifer’s situation is far from uncommon. Executive director Leighann Burns says, “virtually all of us know survivors of violence – even if we don’t realize it.”

And it’s not as easy to leave these situations as one might think; in fact, leaving is just the first step. “Then you have to rebuild your life and there has to be resources there to do it,” says Burns.

“It takes a lot of strength and ingenuity to leave.”

There are many hurdles women face, from rebuilding their self-esteem to tackling challenges like custody, immigration, and criminal matters.

And since 1987, Harmony House has been helping women and children overcome these sorts of barriers and rebuild their lives.

The primary service is advocacy and support, along with affordable housing, which includes fully accessible units for women with disabilities. The residents have a variety of personalized on-site support and resources available.

And after they leave, former residents maintain access to Harmony House programs.

The peer support network at Harmony House is a particularly important source of strength, as abusers often isolate their victims to maintain control, says Burns.

By the time women leave, they may have no personal network left. The friendships formed at Harmony House can provide a much-needed network when women move back into the community.

Jennifer appreciates having her own apartment, with a variety of services and support at her fingertips. Though peer support is an important part of life at Harmony House, personal space is respected.

“I can be social when I need to, and when I need some alone time, I can retreat to my own place.”

And Harmony House addresses the distinct, equally important needs of women and children, says Burns.

For example, where a mother may need help with effective parenting strategies after an abuser has consistently undermined her, her child may need support in overcoming his or her fears of being a burden. “Kids that witness violence are at risk of becoming a victim or a perpetrator.”

And Harmony House helps children learn a new way of living. “They can have a different future,” she says.

Meanwhile, Jennifer says she hopes for government funding for “more places like this,” and that without it, she’d probably be living on the streets.

Coming to Harmony House, she says, was the best decision she ever made.

“There’s lots of healing that happens here.”

*Pseudonym used to protect privacy