Alberta women’s shelters still forced to turn people away despite reduced calls in pandemic

The Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters says even though calls for help have been down in the pandemic — due largely to a lack of shelter space — they still had to turn away nearly 19,000 women, children and seniors.

Shelter space has long been in high demand. The most recent statistics, released Dec. 13, show Alberta women’s shelters housed 6,233 people between April 2020 and March 2021.

Read more: ‘Do whatever you need to do’: Alberta woman who fled domestic abuse during COVID-19

ACWS executive director Jan Reimer says the risk to those individuals is great.

“An alarming 58 per cent of women who enter shelters are at severe or extreme risk of being killed by their current or former partner,” she explained.

“Almost a woman a day has been threatened with a lethal weapon or had a lethal weapon used against her by a current or former partner.”

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That’s what makes it tough to tell people there’s no room at the inn, so to speak.

“Turnaways can happen for a number of reasons. One, the shelter simply doesn’t have enough space. Secondly, the shelter does have the space, but it’s not available due to public health restrictions,” Reimer said.

“Or finally, the shelter is unable to provide the services requested or needed by the caller.”

She said that could include things like mental health counselling and help with addictions or housing.

READ MORE: Calgary domestic violence numbers, while lower, are still staggering: Calgary police

While the number of people being turned away has declined in the pandemic, Reimer cautions it’s not a sign the problem is going away.

“It does not mean that domestic violence rates have decreased. Sadly, municipal police departments and the RCMP are reporting that domestic violence calls have either increased or held steady.”

Reimer explained that when pandemic messaging reminds people to stay home to stay safe, that isn’t the case for everyone, but she believes it has reduced inquiries.

“Women became fearful of their health and that of their children, they were less likely to reach out for support,” she said.

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“But as things relaxed, we again saw those increases in demand, both for support calls and outreach.”

Read more: More people calling Calgary police before domestic incidents become violent

Outreach calls — for things like safety planning, counselling and assistance accessing affordable housing — grew in the pandemic, with shelters helping nearly 8,100 people.

Reimer said you don’t need to be in a shelter to get assistance from one.

“If you need help, go and get it. It’s really important.”

READ MORE: Domestic violence supports in Alberta seeing more requests for services during COVID-19 pandemic

She expressed concern about the aging infrastructure shelters are using, mentioning problems with leaking roofs and plumbing.

“They were built in the ’80s and ’90s. There isn’t really a lot of money ever given to shelters for ongoing maintenance.”

Global News is currently running a donation drive in support of women’s shelters in Alberta.

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