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Shelters for abuse victims report effects of COVID-19 on operations to StatCan

61% of the facilities reported reducing their number of beds to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19
A staff member carries bedding in one of the suites at Toronto’s Interval House, an emergency shelter for women in abusive situations, on Monday February 6, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

A new report from Statistics Canada says one in three shelters for people fleeing abuse reported they were greatly affected in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report used data from 557 Canadian shelters taken on April 14, 2021, which aimed to represent a typical day of operation.

Accommodation capacity was the greatest pandemic-related challenge with 61 per cent of the facilities reporting reducing their number of beds to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19.

The report, released Tuesday, found 93 per cent of residents were staying in facilities for reasons related to abuse and 84 per cent of them were fleeing intimate partner violence.

There was a 49 per cent increase in the number of crisis calls when compared with before the pandemic, and several shelters reported expanding services to connect with victims digitally including by text message.

Angela Marie MacDougall, executive director of Battered Women Support Services in B.C., said she wasn’t surprised by the statistics.

“This has confirmed what we have experienced and that has been very validating in that it recognizes the concerns that people have had about intimate partner violence and family violence. It also confirmed the ways that service providers have needed to be nimble,” she said.

“As much as these are affirming and validating, it’s difficult to know what this information is going to do in terms of public policy around gender-based violence both at the federal level and regionally.”

The report says shelter admissions dropped by 31 per cent when compared to 2017-18, but it noted several barriers at the start of the pandemic for those escaping violence, including fears about contracting the virus.

Kaitlin Geiger-Bardswich, communications director for Women’s Shelters Canada, said the government messaging at the start of the pandemic led to confusion around accessing shelters.

“Isolation is an abuser’s dream and this was, in a sense, state-sponsored isolation, which was important to do in terms of health measures, but there wasn’t enough done to mitigate risks or get the proper messaging out.”

Geiger-Bardswich commended the government on providing about $100 million to their organization to distribute to shelters across the country, with the exception of Quebec, starting in April 2020 and concluding in March 2023. But they are concerned about what may happen to services once the funding stops, she said.

“The fear we have is that it will be going away because COVID doesn’t seem to be going away and violence doesn’t seem to be slowing down.”

Geiger-Bardswich said the report has also highlighted the need for the federal government to begin implementing a National Action Plan on Violence Against Women and Gender-Based Violence.

She said the organization submitted a detailed report, funded by the government, in April 2021 that provided recommendations for an action plan that aims to unify the country on its response to domestic violence.

Geiger-Bardswich said they have not yet been given a date for when the plan will be completed and implementation will begin.

“A woman’s access to services shouldn’t depend on her postal code, and that’s the situation here in Canada.”

– Brieanna Charlebois, The Canadian Press

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