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'An epidemic all by itself': Federal funds will help B.C. houses for abused women amid COVID-19 challenges

Last Updated Apr 6, 2020 at 5:05 am PDT

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

Prior to the pandemic, an average day saw more than 200 women and children turned away due to lack of space in B.C

Funding from the feds will help local groups adapt to the COVID-19 crisis by renting extra space, buying PPE

The BC Society of Transition Houses wants women to know shelter doors are open and 24-hour crisis lines are running

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — The province’s dozens of shelters for women and children escaping violence are welcoming a funding boost from the federal government as they adapt to the “extraordinarily difficult circumstances” posed by COVID-19.

That’s according to Amy FitzGerald, Executive Director of the BC Society for Transition Houses.

She says the coronavirus crisis has compounded the struggles of shelters and the women who seek refuge in them.

“Violence against women is, sadly, a public health and safety crisis and emergency. Not only in Vancouver and Canada, but in North America and the world. It is an epidemic all by itself,” she says.

“So, if you layer on top of that the current pandemic which requires, in some circumstances, isolation at home or stay-at-home criteria it makes it even harder for women to access shelters for sure.”

The society’s membership includes dozens of transition houses, safe homes and second-stage houses.

Fitzgerald says prior to the pandemic, an average day saw more than 200 women and children turned away due to lack of space in B.C.

Now, with social distancing requirements and increased demand, a funding boost from the federal government can be used to secure extra space in hotels or by renting other properties.

“They’re doing critical life-saving support work, safety-planning and providing safe shelter. And they’re doing it in a communal living setting. So the houses have shared spaces, they have shared living rooms and shared kitchens and sometimes shared bathrooms. Because of the health directives and the social distancing requirements, some of the houses have had to reduce their capacity.”

Other needs FitzGerald says can be met with this funding include extra staffing, overtime pay, and purchasing of Personal Protective Equipment.

“It’s a very flexible pool of money. The house will be able to use it for their needs in a very easy and sort of expedited fashion. And that’s how it was designed,” she explains.

‘Where do they transition to?’

The housing and affordability crises in B.C. already made it difficult for women to move on to safe rental housing. Now, mass layoffs, the shuttering of schools, and social distancing requirements have made house-hunting near impossible.

“Once they access shelters, the question is: Where do they transition to?”

Space only frees up in shelters when a woman moves on, so a lack of options exacerbates the shortage of spaces.

“The backdrop to all of this is an affordable housing crisis, and it’s particularly a crisis in British Columbia. Our members had indicated that there was no housing before COVID-19, that there’s no housing for women to transition to. Absolutely, women are staying longer,” FitzGerald says.

‘It’s women helping women’

Women staying in transition houses who need assistance with family or criminal court matters are also facing additional challenges.

“They’re also having issues with respect to legal access and access to justice issues, because of the courts reducing their availability,” FitzGerald explains.

“We’re working with the Rise Women’s Legal Centre to try and identify those issues and to provide resources and legal information for the workers in the shelters, transition houses and safe homes, as well as to the women that they’re supporting.”

FitzGerald says the society is also advocating for more testing for workers, since they have been identified as providing an essential service to a vulnerable group.

“Because of the nature of the communal living setting, that access to priority testing for symptomatic staff members,and for symptomatic women, children, and youth coming into the house will go a long way to providing the shelters and the transition houses some certainty, and some ability to triage cases,” she says.

She says they are also making sure that workers have access to childcare spaces designated for essential workers, as well as shopping hours at grocery stores and pharmacies designated for frontline workers.

But FitzGerald says the number one priority remains ensuring women who need safe shelter and services know the door and 24-hour crisis lines remain open.

“There are wonderful support workers and advocates–predominantly women, so it’s women helping women in the sector–available for folks who are responding to and fleeing violence,”