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A staff member carries bedding in one of the suites at Toronto's Interval House, an emergency shelter for women in abusive situations, in 2017.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Jan Reimer is the executive director of the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters.

In March, when the pandemic prompted a wave of business and service closings in Alberta, no organization seemed immune. During the lockdown, local RCMP detachments in small Alberta towns shut their front doors to walk-ins. Children’s services offices closed down. Food banks were shuttered, too.

But for women’s shelters across Alberta, and indeed across Canada, the possibility of closing down or packing up the office to work from home was never on the table. In the best of times, the journey for women leaving a difficult situation and going to a shelter isn’t an easy one, and so in these unprecedented times, shelter staff knew they had to be there for any woman who needed the help, even as governments told people to stay home.

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Meanwhile, much has been written about the gendered nature of this pandemic. Women have experienced the brunt of job losses or are pulling triple-duty, trying to parent, teach and work all at the same time. Economist Armine Yalnizyan has said there will be no economic recovery without a “she-covery.” Clearly, we need to support child care and other services that enable women to get back to work.

But we also need to support women’s shelters, which for more than 40 years have helped women find safety, stability and resources to leave dangerous cycles of abuse. Though not always recognized as such, women’s shelters offer essential services and respond 24/7 to women and seniors fleeing violence. Women who fear for the safety of their children and for themselves can’t participate fully in the work force or support their families and social networks in myriad other ways, so shelters offer social supports that are vital for our society and our economy.

Women’s shelters have always adapted to the social and economic dynamics of the day. The first shelters in Canada were founded by women who had little funding or community support. In later years, when abusers tried to ram their trucks through the front doors of shelters, staff installed bollards to block their paths. When women in rural areas couldn’t physically escape their isolated farms, shelters arranged emergency pick-ups with local taxi services. Now, amid the various shelter-in-place orders necessitated by the pandemic, there is fear that abusers' toxic instincts to isolate women from friends and family have been compounded by COVID-19.

Fortunately, shelters have already adapted. In Calgary, the Brenda Stafford Centre – a second-stage shelter with 85 apartment units for women and their children – set up a resource hub to help women navigate the multitude of federal funding and program announcements and worked hard to reopen the early-childhood education centre as early as possible to relieve pressures for mothers and children alike. In St. Paul, the Capella Centre liaised with a nearby hotel to ensure women and staff would have a place to isolate if a positive case turned up in the shelter and hired more drivers to take women to appointments and errands.

Other shelters pivoted their counselling online, and every shelter in the province tried to reach women who needed support but didn’t want to risk their health – or government directives – by physically leaving their homes. Shelters used social media to reach women and encourage them to call for support, guidance and counselling; here at the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters, our members even reached out to our global network, asking women’s shelters in Taiwan about their pandemic preparedness and advice.

The Alberta government has offered emergency assistance to shelters during the pandemic, and just recently the federal government boosted its emergency funding to shelters and sexual-assault centres to total $100-million. This money has been a significant lifeline that helped these organizations pay staff for overtime, hire extra drivers and cover the cost of motel rooms for quarantines.

But the pandemic has also highlighted long-standing infrastructure issues, such as outdated buildings with shared bathroom facilities. Pandemic-related stress and anxiety have compounded already significant staffing shortages. Shelters will need more funds to tackle those issues so that we remain prepared for the challenges still to come during this pandemic. For too long, funding for shelters has been offered in a piecemeal fashion, in which a postal-code lottery determines which services Canadian women receive. If the pandemic offers us a chance to pause and consider the need for sustained, equitable shelter funding and women-centred programming, it will be a good thing.

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Shelters have long been part of a support network that is vital to the health of Canadian women. If we want to launch a “she-covery,” we need to recognize and support the work women’s shelters do, whether or not there’s a pandemic happening on top of the existing pandemic of violence against women. That’s because when everyone is told they need to stay home and keep their doors closed, these organizations have to do whatever it takes to keep theirs open.

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