Nova Scotia

Helping women 'find direction in chaos' part of occupational therapist's job

For the past nine months, Dominique Shephard has been working with the YWCA’s Women in Supported Housing program helping participants solve problems that keep them from doing the things most important to them.

Halifax women’s housing organization hires a permanent OT, increasing its support for clients

Dominique Shephard is an occupational therapist with the Halifax YWCA’s Women in Supported Housing program (WISH). (Grace Power/CBC)

Dominique Shephard likes to "find a little bit of direction in chaos" for the women she works with.

For the past nine months, Shephard has been working with the YWCA in Nova Scotia's Women in Supported Housing program, or WISH. It's the first time the program has had a permanent occupational therapist in its 13-year existence.

WISH provides housing to women 19 and older who are on income assistance and have barriers to housing.

Occupational therapists help the women solve problems that are stopping them from living the life they want. Sometimes that means overcoming physical injuries, but it can also mean helping with psychological and social problems.

Many of the women in WISH have experienced chronic homelessness, trauma or mental health issues, which can make it difficult for them to do the things they want, need, or are expected to do during the day, said Shephard.

'Direction in chaos'

"For the first time in a long time — or sometimes for the first time in their lives — I'm asking them, 'What do you like to do?' and they say, 'I don't know.' And it's a wow moment for me," she said.

The women she works with sometimes aren't sure if they enjoy activities like reading or swimming. She helps them find out. Shephard has gone with women to the gym, art classes, and even medical appointments.

"We don't really like to do everything alone, and those things are hard for a lot of people to do anywhere alone," she said.

Krista Dunn, housing manager for YWCA Halifax, said some of the women are living in shelters. "They could be couch-surfing, or any number of housing situations that are precarious or unsafe or not stable."

WISH employs two housing support workers who visit with participants once a week, and work continuously with them while they are part of the program. Women can stay with WISH for up to two years, said Dunn.

Occupational therapy students from Dalhousie frequently come to WISH for work placements. However, Dunn said having Shepherd around on a permanent basis is better.

'I can listen'

"The women that have been working with Dominique have identified that they're feeling that it's really valuable," she said.

The extra support Shephard provides makes it easier for participants to become stable and independent in the long term, said Dunn.

Shephard has built trust with participants throughout her time at WISH, and said she's learned a lot about simply being there for women.

"Sometimes there's nothing I can say and there's nothing I can do, but I can listen."