Alberta women's shelters faced staff shortages, reduced capacity as pandemic dragged on, yearly report shows

The Alberta Council of Women's Shelters annual report shows that thousands of women and seniors were turned away in a one-year period ending March 31 of this year as the pandemic added new challenges.

Alberta Council of Women's Shelters annual report finds 13,605 women and seniors turned away

Alberta Council of Women's Shelters executive director Jan Reimer says increased staff turn over, reduced shelter capacity and fewer fundraising opportunities are some of the obstacles currently being faced. (CBC)

The Alberta Council of Women's Shelters (ACWS) annual report shows thousands of women and seniors were turned away year-over-year, partly due to lack of space and services amid the ongoing pandemic.

The group released data on Monday that analyzed shelter experiences from April 1, 2020 to March 31, 2021.

It saw that 66,687 Albertans were served through residential stays, outreach or calls to shelters; however 13,605 women and seniors were denied admissions.

And according to that data, 5,300 children who would have accompanied their mother, were also turned away.

Jan Reimer, executive director of ACWS, points to increased staff turn over, reduced shelter capacity and fewer fundraising opportunities as some of the obstacles.

"The demand for outreach services also grew during the pandemic, demonstrating the need for services such as safety planning, general counselling and support and assistance in finding affordable housing," she said.

The report also highlights the ongoing struggle with domestic violence in the province and saw that 58 per cent of women who conducted a "danger assessment" were at a severe or extreme level.

"The more that there was the messaging 'stay home, stay safe' [and] as women became fearful of their health about their children, they were less likely to reach out for support," she said.

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

Second-stage shelters more in demand

Admissions to emergency shelters have been lower during pandemic times and saw a decrease of 3,471 admission in 2020-2021.

However, second-stage shelters, where families can stay for longer to find their footing, have seen a big uptick with 533 admissions in that period.

"Women have been telling us for many years that communal living environments are not conducive to their own reasons," said Reimer.

She adds that second-stage shelters also offer more privacy. 

"Shelters are communal living environments for emergencies so sometimes it's even hard to find a place to cry because you're there with your children."

Because of this, Reimer thinks it's important to rethink how shelters are designed.

"The pandemic has taught us that self-contained apartment style units … are more pandemic proof and this is reflected by the increase in admissions at second-stage and a decrease in emergency [shelters]."

Kim Ruse with the Calgary Womens' Emergency Shelter says part of the long-term solution to Alberta's domestic violence epidemic is teaching kids about healthy relationships.

"You can't just build shelters though, you have to also be working on and investing in prevention and earlier intervention, otherwise we'll just keep building shelters and we'll keep filling them," she said.

With files from Jo Horwood


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