Domestic violence shelters adapt as COVID-19 forces families home

CALGARY — Women’s shelters are adjusting to ensure they can help anyone experiencing domestic violence as the COVID-19 pandemic forces families to stay home together, worsens economic hardship and upsets routines.

“We are faced with definitely a very complicated and unprecedented situation,” said Marlene Ham, executive director of the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses, which represents more than 70 shelters in the province.

“We know home is not safe for many women and that is the location in which women are experiencing the most harassment, violence and, in certain circumstances, mortality.”

Shelters have been directed to have screening plans. Ham said services are still running 24 hours a day and she’s not aware of any shelters in Ontario closing.

Some shelters are providing outreach over the phone or online rather than in person.

“There may be some adaptation to what we do, but certainly we are available to provide the supports that we need to provide at this time.”

Ham is encouraging women who need help to reach out to their local shelter. Contact information for shelters across Canada can be found at Safeshelter.ca.

Anonymous crisis lines are also available to help women formulate safety plans.

Anyone in immediate danger — or afraid someone else is — should call 911.

“If women are experiencing violence in the home — reach out so that we can find some other options,” said Ham.

“We certainly don’t want women to feel that self-isolating at home becomes more important than your physical safety.”

Jan Reimer of the Alberta Council of Women’s shelters said it’s too soon to say whether the pandemic is causing a surge in domestic violence, but she can see how it would contribute.

“We do know that domestic violence is all about power and control, so we can see the potential for abusers to use the virus to further isolate women,” she said.

That could take the form of cutting women off from friends and family or stopping them from getting medical attention.

“For friends and family to continue to reach out to women would be really important,” she added.

Reimer said shelters are overwhelmingly staffed by women, many of whom have had to scramble to find childcare as the virus closed schools and daycares.

Shelters have been leaning on each other to make sure they’re well supplied and provincial funding has helped, said Reimer.

The Alberta government announced Tuesday that $60 million would go toward adult homeless shelters, women’s emergency shelters and the Family and Community Support Services program.

Reimer said anyone who wants to donate to a women’s shelter should give money online instead of dropping off goods.

Calgary Police Chief Mark Neufeld said in a briefing Wednesday that the force would be watching the effect that COVID-19 is having on domestic crimes.

“We appreciate that people are cooped up and, probably more important than that, a lot of people’s … family habits and stuff that they would normally do have been interrupted,” he said. ”That could certainly have an impact.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on March 18, 2020

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press

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