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Linda Lafantaisie-Renaud, director of the Horizon Women’s Centre, expects a spike in demand as a result of social isolation and anxiety due to COVID-19.

by Isabel Mosseler

Things are “eerily quiet” at the Horizon Women’s Shelter in West Nipissing, says director Linda Lafantaisie Renaud. All indicators point to an increase in domestic violence across Canada during the coronavirus lockdown, and the expectation is that shelter services will be in higher demand. To that end the shelter, which has been underfunded for the past few years, received an extra $32,000 in federal funding for services related to Covid-19.  But the shelter hasn’t experienced an up-tick - yet.

“That’s the weirdest part,” says Lafantaisie Renaud. “But we haven’t seen the worst of it. This has been going for five weeks now, and this is the reason we have kept a few rooms just for women who are fleeing, because we know that the more isolated they are with an abuser, it’s going to get worse. I’m thinking within a week or two, we’ll be getting a lot of calls.”

She says other shelters are experiencing a similar quiet, and this is raising a few flags. “Since April of last year, we were almost full, and now it’s strange; it’s eerie – I think people are hesitating, and I’m not sure …  I think for a lot of people, and this would got for victims of violence as well, all of our anxiety and stress has increased so maybe it’s just the uncertainty of everything, that people think it will be over soon. It’s not something I can really answer.” National experts have suggested that women may fear leaving home, even an abusive home, during a health crisis and those with children may fear going to a shelter would put their kids at risk of contracting the virus.

The federal funding of $32,000 is money that came through Shelters Canada, and is specifically earmarked for costs incurred in preparing for and responding to the Covid-19 crisis.  Examples include “additional staff time/overtime, hiring new staff, child care, supplies related to the delivery of ongoing services or to meet additional demand, and rental expenses for additional housing/hotels to meet demand.” The shelter is also applying for provincial funding through the provincial COVID-19 Residential Relief Fund (CRRF). The Horizon Women’s Shelter has 10 beds, and their occupancy rate has been over 90% for much of the past year. If demand suddenly rises, they would have to find alternative accommodations for the overflow.

Lafantaisie Renaud also relates that these last few weeks have seen a whole new regimen instituted to address a constantly evolving situation. With several women and children sharing a group home, with just one kitchen and common areas, safety measures are particularly important – and challenging. “That’s where my overtime went. We’ve had to upgrade all of our infectious disease policies, for staff, for residents, for essential visitors, we’ve had to change.” Social distancing is impossible within the shelter, but protocols for all interaction with the outside world have been adjusted. “Say if CAS has a client here – I’ve had to change everything – before they enter the shelter they have to put a mask on.” The same goes for any repair people called in.

The changes especially affect the residents. “Right now, we are not allowing them to leave the shelter… We asked them and they totally agreed; it wasn’t something I forced anyone to do, but if you cannot follow the policy and procedures for COVID, they would be asked to leave, because they cannot bring [that danger] in.  Say one of the residents says “I don’t care; I’m going to go to [shopping].” No. The only thing they can do is if it’s an emergency, like having to go to the hospital for bloodwork.” That strict response is directly related to the close quarters people have to live and work in, requiring even more stringent efforts to limit exposure.

“The clients have been so good about it, not complaining or anything and it’s hard for them. At least for us, we can go for groceries once a week. For them, they’ve agreed to this to keep everyone safe. (…) It affects children too when they can’t go out and the only access they have is the backyard…” It’s largely because of the impossibility of maintaining social distancing in a restricted space. “It’s not possible with the space we have, no, just not doable.” The staff is also asked to enforce strict social distancing in their personal lives. “If you think about it, if our clients get it, they would be getting it from staff.”

The changes and readjustments have added more pressure onto an already difficult situation. Lafantaisie Renaud says, “For me it’s the unknown, (stress, anxiety) because we don’t know what’s coming (…) Our spending has increased because people are here 24 hours a day.” Just as most people are experiencing increased grocery bills at home, the shelter feels it tenfold. Purchases are more expensive as products are limited on the shelves, “So if it’s the highest cost product, I have to take it. Even our internet is slower – more people are using it, and it’s just added stress for the clients. The children are here and they have to home school them. It’s just the overall stress.”

The Horizon Women’s Shelter is also maintaining social distancing through its whole intake process. The initial assessments are done by telephone. In a typical day, “First of all we have to assess the risk to see if there is a risk of Covid-19 to the other residents. Then we would have to house the client in [alternate facilities], at another secure area, because if there is a risk, we have to isolate them for 14 days until they can enter.” If someone is tested for C-19, the Centre also has to wait for the results.

All of the centre’s non-essential services are conducted by telephone as well, including counselling sessions and outreach services. “Of course, it makes it more difficult. We’re a women’s agency and we’re used to doing things face to face. I think everyone is really well adjusted to this; we have no choice. The staff has been really positive and supportive. If staff start refusing to come in, I won’t have an open shelter. I have to give a hand to them - the residents and staff have been keeping very positive about all of this. (…) It’s affecting everyone – but the good thing is that we’re all safe for now.”

The fact is many outbreaks in Ontario have occurred in residential situations, largely because there are more interactions. “It was as soon as March 16th that I made the decision, I did not wait. I took an advance on this and asked everyone to stay in and it went really well.” Does the $32,000 in federal funding address the need? “No – it just addresses our COVID expenses. Any funds unused need to be returned. They are emergency COVID-related,” notes Lafantaisie. The centre remains very appreciative of any other supports they receive. Horizon still works with the Food Bank, but has stopped the Community Kitchen for now.

Lafantaisie Renaud wants people to know that Horizon is there for them no matter the crisis, and she hopes people who need help won’t hesitate to reach out. “Even if it’s a family member of a woman being abused, they can always call us as well, to get support, because it’s hard when you see someone you love being hurt – and they maybe don’t know how to address it. They don’t know how to talk to her about it. So even if they call and we can explain what a safety plan is. Those are all things we do provide.”

A lot of people haven’t been in close quarters with family members like this, and it may be stressing some severely. “Especially with not having money, not working, that increases everything, the stress levels. It’s important for couples to find their own things to do.” Blowing their top is not normal behaviour for most, but they might not know how to release the extra steam. Lafantaisie advises, “It’s important to keep contact with people who are usually a support system for them; Facetime, Zoom. It’s important to keep the social aspect that way so they don’t feel so isolated. Same thing for men and women, it’s important to still, even in the same home, be independent, to work on things they like for themselves. Maybe that will relieve a bit of stress.” She adds that this can also be a time to get to know your partner in a more meaningful way – if the relationship is a good one.

As for the community of West Nipissing, “We’ve never had a problem with the community backing us up. We have such a good community. It’s nice to see how people are supporting each other. I’ve seen people who needed groceries, others [have stepped up] saying ‘I’ll go do them.’ (…) We were having issues finding toilet paper and suddenly someone drops off a big case. Board members brought groceries. It’s so nice to see people pulling together.”

The Horizon Women’s Shelter is an emergency shelter for women and their children in crisis, with services offered in both French and English. You can call 24-hours a day at 705-753-1154, or leave a message on their Facebook page. If you are in immediate danger, call 911.

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Women’s shelter may be experiencing calm before the storm