Pandemic adding to pressure on rural women's shelters

·4 min read

Back in mid-April, about a month into the COVID-19 pandemic, Magdalena became worried her husband's verbal and sexual abuse would escalate.

"'You're stuck here with me, you got to do everything I want you to,'" Magdalena recalls her husband telling her. CBC has agreed not to publish her full name to protect her identity and safety.

Originally from Mexico, now living in rural eastern Ontario with no family support, Magdalena said she called 10 women's shelters before finding safe beds for her and her young son.

"I just grabbed my kid and we left," she said.

She was driven to an unfamiliar community 100 kilometres away, where she recently found a job and has lived in a shelter ever since.

"I cannot imagine what could have happened if I didn't leave that day. I'm in a shelter and I'm grateful to be in here, but I don't want to be here forever," she said.

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Submitted

Call volume up 75%

Women's shelters in rural eastern Ontario say they're coping with an excessive number of crisis calls and an increasingly volatile environment for women, all while dealing with COVID-19 restrictions on their staff and facilities.

"If you compare April 2019 to April 2020, our calls were 75 per cent up," said Erin Lee, executive director at Lanark County Interval House in Carleton Place, Ont. "We've seen more severe incidents of violence. Women are reporting more complexities in the violence."

Across the region, Lee's counterparts report a similar story.

"We're looking at about 800 crisis calls so far this year," said Deborah Thomas executive director of Naomi's Family Resource Centre, a nine-bed shelter in Winchester, Ont.

Jean Delisle/CBC
Jean Delisle/CBC

To the southwest, Leeds and Grenville Interval House in Brockville, Ont., is chronically full, and like the others, has fewer rooms available due to COVID-19 precautions.

"We have had to use hotels ... for all of our overflow," said Charlene Catchpole, executive director of the Brockville shelter.

Leeds and Grenville provides outreach services to about 250 families in an area from Westport to Kemptville to the St. Lawrence Seaway and everywhere in between, while the Lanark County shelter serves approximately 400 families in the wider community, women who may never need a shelter bed but still need help to stay safe.

Money with strings attached

Early on in the pandemic, women's shelters across the country shared a $20.5-million fund from Women and Gender Equality Canada. In October, the federal department promised "up to $10 million [more] for women's shelters and sexual assault centres to help them continue to provide their critical services safely."

"It's the first time for us that we've ever received money from the federal government, so it has been helpful," said Lee.

The rural directors say the money was spent on new equipment, mileage for outreach visits, and internet and data plans so staff could communicate with women in need. Money received from the Ontario government, the main funder of women's shelters, came with the condition that it be spent directly on services inside the shelter.

"[If] we have to go and buy dash cams or we have to help with some of the security issues, we can't use the provincial money for that," said Lee.

Julie Ireton/CBC
Julie Ireton/CBC

Staff burnout

With fewer volunteers and more reports of violence, the executive directors worry about their staff.

"I have no doubt that we're burnt out," said Catchpole. "Staff are doing all the cooking. They're doing three times the cleaning ... we don't have volunteers doing that anymore."

Naomi's Family Resource Centre in Winchester has lost 30 per cent of its staff since March.

"Some people openly declared at the beginning, 'I can't work here because of pre-existing health conditions,' and we're not allowed to have staff working at two shelters at the same time," said Thomson.

Most shelters depend on community fundraising to keep operating, but during the pandemic, face-to-face fundraising events aren't possible.

"We're entering into the Christmas season, which is our big time of the year for fundraising. Right now we are probably down by about 60 per cent for this time of year," said Catchpole. "It's a perfect storm.