Nova Scotia

COVID-19 has shown need for sustainable approach to transition houses, says advocate

With a lockdown of sorts in place, the spike in phone calls to transition houses across the province didn't arrive during the first wave of COVID-19 in Nova Scotia, but transition houses found other ways to communicate with people in need.

More support for women leaving abusive homes, staff retention among issues to address

Shiva Nourpanah is the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia's provincial co-ordinator. She is heartened by the level of support and attention transition houses have received during the pandemic in terms of financial support from governments and the private sector. (CBC)

The provincial co-ordinator of the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia is hoping needs highlighted during the coronavirus pandemic lead to a more sustainable system.

With a lockdown of sorts in place, the spike in demand at transition houses across the province didn't arrive during the first wave of COVID-19 in Nova Scotia, although some advocates weren't expecting it would. 

Shiva Nourpanah said there is "no doubt" that shelters across the country and beyond saw a decrease in calls because women were home all the time with their abusers and couldn't find a way to reach out. Here in Nova Scotia, there was a lot of fluctuating demand, she said.

"We've had houses full and empty over the weekend."

A need for provincial text service

A change transition houses quickly instituted was a shift to text-based communication, something Nourpanah said was much easier and safer for women to use at a time when most people were home from work and schools and daycares were closed. She's hoping a provincewide text service can be created to provide an additional, discreet contact option.

Nourpanah said she is heartened by the level of support and attention transition houses have received during the pandemic in terms of financial support from governments and the private sector.

Each house has its own needs, and they can vary widely, with some being very basic.

"Being able to buy a good dishwasher, which actually sanitizes dishes, rather than an old cranky hand-me-down," said Nourpanah.

"This is what, in some cases, that money has meant."

But the pandemic has also highlighted just how precarious the situation can be for service organizations and the people they are trying to help. Nourpanah said there needs to be a more sustainable model that helps address things such as staff retention and possibly even allows for the creation of pensions for long-term workers.

Straightforward response to crisis

Then there are the needs of the people they serve.

The federal Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB), which provides people with $2,000 a month, is proof that in moments of crisis the government can set up and provide help in a simple way, said Nourpanah.

"It showed how possible it is to design and deliver an effective, easy-to-navigate system, which did not require hours of time-consuming advocacy by trained workers for clients who are suffering from a myriad of issues, not to mention violence and leaving their home."

This is key, she said, because finances can often be a barrier to someone leaving an abusive situation.

Kelly Regan, the province's minister responsible for the Advisory Council on the Status of Women Act, said she's particularly interested in the idea of a provincewide text system.

What other changes might come for the system as the COVID-19 curve continues to flatten, remain to be seen.

Kelly Regan is the province’s minister responsible for the Advisory Council on the Status of Women Act. (CBC)

Regan said early into the pandemic, weekly meetings started happening with transition houses to understand their needs, something she believes was helpful.

Since March, the province has provided $535,000 to transition houses and other organizations that work with vulnerable women and children, which Regan said was intended to help offset costs related to things such as adding cleaning requirements and strain on staffing levels.

"This was definitely to do with the pandemic," she said.

The minister was less enthusiastic about the idea of a program such as the CERB continuing. Regan said the province has looked at the idea of a guaranteed basic income, but it seems prohibitively expensive.

'Is there more we could do?'

Still, the minister said she knows there are certain things women require as they leave abusive situations and her government wants to make sure they have what they require to do just that.

"That's why we have income assistance in Nova Scotia," she said.

Regan also pointed to legislation her government passed that allows for paid leave from work for people who need time to prepare for a move to a safer living arrangement.

"Is there more we could do? There's always more," said Regan.

"What would it look like? I'm not sure."

Collective problems need collective solutions

Nourpanah said she's hoping the past three months have driven home that issues vulnerable people are facing are public health issues and need to be treated as such.

"They're not an issue that is invisible and hide away neatly in a shelter somewhere," she said.

"There are collective problems, which require collective solutions."

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