COVID restrictions led to lost funding, less space for women's shelters: report

·3 min read

Pandemic restrictions and staff shortages in Alberta’s women's shelters saw thousands of women turned away from services they needed, according to a report.

In December the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters (ACWS) released its annual report, which highlighted that 13,605 women were turned away from services across the province this year, while another 66,687 were able to access the services they needed.

Jan Reimer, executive director of ACWS, said turn-aways can happen for many reasons, including lack of shelter space; limited shelter space due to public-health restrictions; or an inability to provide the requested services of a caller.

“Overall calls to shelters went down as COVID-19 cases went up. For each wave, as the number of cases increased, the calls and admissions went down,” Reimer said.

The executive director said this really speaks to the importance of public messaging and how the messaging of “stay home and stay safe” may have been harmful for those in abusive situations.

“[For] many who remain cramped at home with abusers, [the abusers] use the pandemic restrictions as another way to isolate and use [that isolation] to their advantage,” Reimer said

"But as things relaxed, then we saw those increases in demand, support, calls, and outreach."

Despite the fewer calls to shelters during the height of the pandemic, RCMP departments across the province are reporting that domestic violence calls have either increased or held steady, including 15 domestic homicides reported in 2021.

While admissions to emergency shelters were lower during the peaks of the pandemic, admissions to second-stage shelters increased from what was seen in 2019-2020, with some 533 women admitted. Second-stage shelters are more self-contained, apartment-style units that provide a longer period of stay, from as long as six months to two years.

“The second-stage shelter model could prove to be more resilient in the event of future pandemics,” the report read, due to the less communal nature of the facilities.

Reimer said for many women, communal shelters offer no private space for women. Sometimes it can be tough to even find a place to cry privately if they are there with their children.

Because of the successful second-stage shelter model, Reimer said it is important to rethink how shelters are designed.

When women did make their way to a shelter, 58 per cent were at severe or extreme risk of being killed by their current or former partners.

Of the 1,155 women who completed the danger assessment tool, 29 per cent of them had been threatened with a lethal weapon or had a lethal weapon used against them.

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, fundraising for shelters was impacted greatly. Since shelters rely on public funding for roughly one-fifth of their budgets, Reimer said shelters had to be acrobats to find creative solutions to their financial challenges.

“What we are seeing is shelters have to do more and more with less and less,” Reimer said.

With public services shrinking across the board, Reimer said shelters are forced to fill those service gaps and connect women over health care, housing, and legal supports.

Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, St. Albert Gazette

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