Families turned away, as social distancing cuts space in Winnipeg domestic violence shelters

Winnipeg’s two emergency domestic violence shelters are turning away women and children fleeing violence, because social-distancing protocols have forced them to reduce their bed capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

More safe space is needed in light of COVID-19, says shelter director

Women should still phone crisis lines if they're facing violence at home and centres will work with them to find them a safe place. (ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock)

Winnipeg's two emergency domestic violence shelters are turning away women and children fleeing violence, because social-distancing protocols have forced them to reduce their bed capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ikwe Widdjiitiwin Inc., an Indigenous women's and children's family and domestic violence shelter which normally has 35 spots, and Willow Place, a domestic violence  shelter which normally has 38 spots, are full and referring women in crisis to other domestic violence shelters outside of Winnipeg. 

Both sites provide meals, lodging and specialized crisis support for 30 days to women and families. The centres have  reduced their bed numbers to create distance between rooms, in line with public health requirements to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

"Nobody likes to not be able to bring somebody in, but when you don't have the physical space, all you can do is rely on the other resources and hope that somebody will support this person," said Kim Fontaine, executive director of Ikwe Widdjiitiwin, which is down to about 75 per cent of its usual capacity.

"But the reality is that we don't all have beds just available to bring in everybody … and that's a huge concern."

Fontaine said daily conversations are happening with the province, which funds the shelters, as space is urgently needed.

"A space like this could be the difference between life or death. It's a place of safety, where some women, they don't have that at all in their home," she said.

Along with police, women in crisis should still call crisis lines for counselling over the phone and referrals to other sites outside the city, she said. Staff also work hard to find women and families a placement, even if they're full, at the Salvation Army or the Winnipeg women's shelter.

But with COVID-19, she said, numbers will grow.

"Domestic violence won't take a break for a pandemic. My concern is that because people are at home self-isolating, people are away from their jobs. We know that the risk is probably going to grow during this time," said Fontaine.

"I do believe we need to locate more safe space so that we have more capacity to bring in more women and children."

Programming at domestic violence shelters is unique — staff are trained in trauma and provide holistic care to women and children as a family unit. They provide violence counselling, child care, protection-order and legal support, as well as medical care and on-site schooling for children, eventually helping families transition on. 

Kim Fontaine, director of Ikwe Widdjiitiwin, which is Cree for 'women helping women,' says more safe space is needed for women and children fleeing violence. (Submitted by Kim Fontaine)

A spokesperson for the province pointed to the Family Violence Prevention Program, which provides guidelines about how shelters at capacity can support women and children in need, including finding other placements or covering the cost of hotels. 

"FVPP staff are in regular contact with shelters to discuss availability, and are collaborating with the family violence second stage programs and women's resource centres to problem solve during this unprecedented time," the spokesperson for the Status of Women wrote.

"We're all struggling with this to be perfectly honest," said Deena Brock, provincial co-ordinator at the Manitoba Association of Women's Shelters.

COVID-19 is not only causing staffing issues as some self-isolate, she said, but staff are trying to protect some  immunocompromised clients, such as those undergoing cancer treatments. She said some shelters across the province have been able to get women into hotels, but not all. 

One of the ideas from shelters' meetings has been to use space at one of the shuttered resource centres, she said. It would help if the province would provide supports, such as daycare, she said, similar to what is being done for essential services workers.

Brock said sites are doing COVID-19 screening, keeping clients a safe distance from each other, and encouraging proper hygiene, although centres are severely short on supplies.

Calls for service haven't risen though, she said, but she worries about what's coming when school lets out. 

"That kind of scares me. So we're hoping that women that are feeling a little uncomfortable or nervous [and] aren't sure about their personal situation, [will] call a shelter now. Don't wait for another two or three weeks."

'It's changing every day'

The North End Women's Centre, which provides drop-in safe space and programming for women and children in crisis on Selkirk Avenue, has eliminated its regular drop-in programming and group support for women in crisis, but is available by phone, social media and pickup of essentials. 

"There are tons of people on the phone regularly and on conference calls that are trying to figure out how to do this, how to best support the community. But it's changing every day and every hour," said executive director Cynthia Drebot. 

"Time will tell, but I hope that there will be larger strategies put in place to support people who are in more vulnerable situations."

Space and eventual funding from the province will be vital, said Fontaine.

"It's a serious issue 365 days of the year, but it's a very serious issue right now, with spaces tightening and a need for greater resources and services. Where a lot of places are having to physically close their doors.

"Domestic violence is on the rise, all the time, period," she said.  "But now you throw in COVID-19 and you have all these people at home and you have these people self isolating, we need to create more safe space for these families." 

She said she will accept much needed donations of large sized diapers and any kind of formula.

Resources available now

Though some in-person support services are no longer open to the public, phone lines and online support remains available for most centres. 

  • Ikwe Widdjiitiwin: Toll-free: 1-800-362-3344.
  • Willow Place Crisis 204-615-0311 OR 1-877-977-0007.
  • Provincial crisis line: 1-877-977-0007.
  • North End Women's Centre: Available by phone, online, groups of three or less inside.
  • West Central Womens' Resource Centre: Appointment only for laundry, showers, crisis support. Urgent visits only. Bag lunches and dinners at door.
  • North Point Douglas Women's Centre: Food/coffee/hygiene pickup, visits of 10 minutes or less, five people inside at a time.
  • Sage House (Mount Carmel Clinic): Drop in counselling cancelled. Snacks and hygiene available for pickup at door.
  • Wahbung Abinoonjiiag Inc.: Temporarily closed, available over social media and phone.

Anyone facing immediate danger should call 911.

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