By Zohar Gurevich
She spent most of her nights walking the streets. Her university workload was challenging before, but now finishing homework was impossible. She couldn’t go home — the abuse was unbearable.
“Shelters wouldn’t help her because she hadn’t been physically or sexually assaulted,” says Joanna Holt, the administrative counselor at the Ryerson Centre for Student Development and Counseling. “This was before emotional abuse was recognized as a form of abuse.”
The student arrived at Holt’s office on the fourth floor of the Jorgenson Hall more than six years ago, but Holt still speaks passionately about the student’s dire situation.
“[I] left that counseling session feeling unsettled,” says Holt.
Holt’s discussion with fellow Ryerson counselor Rosemary Volpe following that particular counseling session was the inspiration for the creation of the Ryerson Safe House.
Through the support of campus services such as financial aid, security and campus housing the Ryerson Safe House offers cost-free emergency accommodation to students in crisis.
“We want students who have found themselves in crisis, through no fault of their own, to know they are not alone,” says Holt.
The Safe House has no address. No residents. There’s not even a welcome mat.
“It’s a virtual house,” says Holt. “The house has no actual location, rather a series of locations throughout Toronto.”
Since the Safe House’s establishment in 1997, Holt has built a support network with residents across the city who’ve agreed to provide Ryerson students with safe accommodation.
“Based on what section of the city the student would be safest determines where the student is sent.”
Finding students a place to sleep is not the Safe House’s only function.
With the help of student financial assistance and the Ontario Students Assistance Program, Holt ensures the financial needs of students in abusive situations are met. She also asks Ryerson instructors to extend the deadlines on exams and assignments for students with the Safe House.
“It’s not unusual that students will have their computers destroyed and notes thrown out of the window,” says Holt, who’ll do whatever it takes to stop a student from dropping out.
Holt says it is common for students in crisis to go without food for three or four days, so she occasionally provides students with campus meal cards. Above all, Holt makes sure all cases at the Safe House are kept private.
Chris Benninger, supervisor of operations for Ryerson campus security, is one of the biggest contributors to the Safe House.
One look at the heavily-built Benninger and it’s clear why students would feel safe with him.
“Every time Joanna calls, I jump on board to help out,” says Benninger.
If a student is going through a crisis, security will get the Safe House involved as well as provide police protection and confidentiality in cases of physical danger.
In addition to sitting on the committee for future planning of the Safe House, Benninger also teaches self-defense classes to students.
“I hate it when women are being manipulated or beaten,” says Benninger. “Usually if a girl attacks back, the attacker walks away. Attackers are looking for passiveness.”
This year Benninger began offering classes to men.
“When men attack women, it’s about control,” says Benninger. “When men attack men — it’s ego based. Before we teach the men how to kick, we teach them how to walk away from a fight.”
Holt credits campus security for extending the services the Safe House is able to offer to students. But the house would not be able to provide any services if it wasn’t for Holt.
It was Holt who discovered a government grant that promised to match any donations a university raised towards a social program. Among other fundraising projects, Ryerson theatre students organized a benefit performance for the fundraising project. Ultimately, Holt was able to raise over $75,000. With this money the Ryerson Safe House was bon.
A student relying on the Safe House’s services once told Holt, “just knowing that I had the ability to live got me going.” Comments like those make holt want to help as many students as possible.
However, Holt is adamant the Safe House will never provide assistance to students who require financial aid because they did not manage their money efficiently.
“The Safe House is not for students who ran out of money because they rented an apartment downtown for $1,700,” says Holt. “Students like that will have our sympathy, but they will not have our support.”