Fewer women seeking shelter from abusers a 'worry' for experts

Occupancy rates at women's shelters in Kitchener and Cambridge have gone down during COVID-19, according to the executive director of Women's Crisis Services of Waterloo Region.

Occupancy at women's shelters in Kitchener and Cambridge has gone down during COVID-19

Jennifer Hutton says fewer victims of domestic violence have been coming into shelter recently. She's worried that means they're stuck at home with their abusers. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Lower occupancy rates at the women's shelters in Kitchener and Cambridge are a worrying sign in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis for the head of Women's Crisis Services of Waterloo Region.

Before the pandemic hit the region, Jennifer Hutton said Anselma House and Haven House were consistently operating at close to 100 per cent capacity. 

Now, the shelters are hovering at closer to 50 to 60 per cent capacity, she said. 

"[We're] not seeing that need for shelter as much as what would be typical," said Hutton.

"That is a worry, that it's still not safe for [women] to reach out because of the situation that they're living in ... with their abusive partner who's able to really monitor and oversee any kind of move that they're making."

The number of calls to the organization's support line is also falling.

In January, staff received 240 calls from women seeking help, according to numbers provided by Women's Crisis Services of Waterloo Region. In March, staff received 186, and are on track to receive 145 calls in April.

"Women are just not having that break," said Hutton. 

"Typically they're coming into shelter or calling us for support when their abusive partner's out of the home [and] when they don't have those opportunities, they're within the same house all day, and there's a lot of monitoring."

More calls to police, no increase in charges

Police say they've been getting more calls related to domestic violence. 

Staff Sgt. Terri Turner said her team with Waterloo Regional Police is getting about 10 per cent more of these calls than what she considers normal.

The week of April 19 had a particularly high number of domestic violence calls — police say they responded to 132 calls, up from 100 the same week last year. 

Still, police haven't laid many more charges than usual, which she said indicates these new cases are likely "less serious" offences rather than violent assaults. 

"They're still concerning," said Turner. "I don't like to see those numbers going up at any time, and especially right now, it's something we need to pay attention to and be aware of."

Turner said she's also troubled to hear that fewer women are seeking help at Haven House and Anselma House. 

"One of the concerns we had from the start of this is that it would be more difficult for women, or anyone in a difficult situation, to make that call for help," said Turner.

"If you're surrounded 24/7 by your abuser, it makes it more difficult."

Turner said she's aware of a new text message service developed in Ottawa that could help victims who can't find a safe moment for a phone call, and hopes to introduce a similar service locally. 

As for Hutton, she expects to see a significant spike in demand for shelter space once physical distancing guidelines loosen and life begins to return to normal.

For now, Hutton said staffers are looking for affordable housing for the women who are in shelter right now, and are working with other community partners to plan for an influx in women seeking shelter in the months to come.

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