Manitoba domestic violence shelters see drop in demand amid social distancing, but problem 'hasn't stopped'
Most safe places for women, families currently have openings, and shelters believe they know why
Manitoba's domestic violence shelters are receiving fewer calls for a safe space to stay since the first case of coronavirus emerged in the province. But front-line workers say the issue isn't going away, in spite of social distancing measures.
The Manitoba Association of Women's Shelters is seeing the trend across the province in a sector that is more accustomed to experiencing shortages of available space.
"It's hard for these ladies and men — anybody who is experiencing abuse — because they're isolated with their abuser, so they may not even be allowed to use the telephone, and if they make a call they're probably being monitored," said Deena Brock, provincial co-ordinator of MAWS.
"We're just concerned that there's less calls coming in and that we do have vacancies."
As recently as March 21, Brock said many shelters were full.
That was just over one week after the first COVID-19 cases were identified in Manitoba, followed by growing calls from government officials to stay at home to limit the spread.
Today, many domestic violence shelters — which supply food, lodging and crisis supports for weeks at a time — have more openings than they're used to, said Brock.
One possible issue: women may not be able to make the brief but crucial phone call for help.
Drop steady across shelters
"Their ability to grab that one minute of free time may be potentially gone — they don't have that alone time," said Kim Fontaine, executive director of Ikwe Widdjiitiwin Inc., a shelter for Indigenous women and families experiencing domestic violence.
Ikwe typically has eight rooms with 35 spots in total. Prior to COVID-19 social distancing orders, several rooms could take multiple families, though as with other shelters Ikwe has changed its spacing and layout to ensure fewer people are close together.
Even still, as of Tuesday, Ikwe had two family rooms and a single room free, which Fontaine says isn't common.
She guesses that the public health messaging urging people to stay at home is resonating with families in domestic violence situations.
Some women may be apprehensive about putting their kids into a communal living situation based on the perceived risk of contracting COVID-19, said Fontaine.
"It's obviously concerning because we're fully aware this hasn't stopped," she said. "The ability to make that phone call perhaps no longer exists."
'This is quite alarming'
A similar pattern is playing out at Willow Place. The domestic violence shelter currently has nine of 17 rooms free.
"This hasn't happened for several years," said Marcie Wood, Willow Place executive director.
"We're usually near at-capacity most of the time."
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Wood said calls to the crisis line haven't necessarily dropped, but the demand for rooms started to decline in the past two weeks.
She said she is bracing for a surge in demand again in coming weeks. Isolation can tend to lead to an escalation in abusive behaviour in domestic violence situations, said Wood.
"It's inevitable that that will have an impact," she said. "This could be the calm before the storm."
'Stress is probably arising'
Similar trends are popping up outside Winnipeg.
Genesis House in Winkler has seen about a 20 per cent drop in demand for its rooms, said executive director Angela Braun.
It usually has five in total, with each — prior to social distancing orders — capable of handling more than one family simultaneously.
Braun said it isn't uncommon for the shelter to have one or two rooms free at any given time, but they've had three spots open in recent weeks. The number of crisis calls have also slumped.
"When they are socially isolated and possibly together with their partner there would be little opportunity to call for help," she said.
"I think stress is probably arising in these homes where everyone is locked in together, and if abuse existed before the COVID crisis, it will certainly be magnified now."
Expecting surge post-distancing orders
Shelters anticipate the calls will surge again once social distancing measures relax, though it's unclear when that will happen.
Community group and shelter representatives sat in on a call Tuesday morning with officials with the provincial family violence prevention program and the province's status of women department.
A spokesperson for the department said it is working with women's resource centres and family violence program directors to solve problems arising during the COVID-19 response in Manitoba.
"The expert advice offered by these agencies is crucial in working together to reach Manitobans experiencing family violence," the spokesperson wrote in an email.
All agency representatives in that meeting agreed it is urgent to get the word out and inform people in need that shelters are still open, said Brock and Braun.
"People need to hear that message because once things do start to let off a little" in terms of social distancing, said Braun, "people will be looking for help."
Supports available in Manitoba:
- Manitoba government Stop the Violence program: Toll-free: 1-888-987-2829.
- 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.
- Men's Resource Centre.
Anyone facing immediate danger should call 911.
Have information about this story? Email Bryce Hoye.
With files from Erin Brohman