Demand for Alberta emergency shelters remained high during the COVID-19 pandemic: report

A new report shows the demand for shelters, emergency housing, counselling, and other aid in Alberta among women, children, and seniors remained at an all-time high during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters (ACWS) released its annual data report Monday morning, examining shelter experiences from April 1, 2020, to March 31, 2021.

More than 5,600 women, children, and seniors were admitted to emergency shelters across the province during that period.

Shelters received 52,300 calls from people seeking support, advice, and assistance. Almost 8,100 women, children, and seniors accessed outreach services offered by shelters.

The ACWS represents 40 organizations and shelters that operate more than 50 emergency and second stage shelters for women, their children, and seniors.

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE

Compared to 2019-20 and 2020-21 trends, the ACWS says there was a decrease in both admissions and turn-away numbers last year.

“While calls and admissions to women’s shelters across the province are down in comparison to pre-pandemic years, this does not mean domestic violence rates have decreased,” the report said.

Statistics released by the Edmonton Police Service indicated officers responded to 15 per cent more domestic violence calls in 2020 than the previous year.

The Calgary Police Service released statistics showing that the number of domestic violence reports remained within the pre-pandemic range of 30,000 calls per year, but that an increasing number of calls they respond to are abuse but fall short of the threshold needed to meet a criminal charge.

Alberta RCMP reported 29,588 domestic violence calls.

ELDER ABUSE RISES

Nationally, the rate of police-reported family violence against seniors in Canada was eight per cent higher in 2019.

The ACWS says that represents the fourth consecutive annual increase. While there was a drop in admissions of seniors to shelters in Alberta in 2020-21, the ACWS believes the pandemic temporarily lowered the provincial admission numbers.

“Seniors may be isolated by their abusers and unable to access shelter supports,” the report mentioned. “Older adults may also have fears about entering a communal living space due to the increased health risks posed by COVID.”

SHELTER OUTREACH DEMAND SPIKES

According to the ACWS, the number of women accessing outreach programming almost doubled over the pandemic, from 3,700 in 2019-20 to 6,100 the year after.

Outreach programming can include general counselling, assistance finding affordable housing, or safety planning, the ACWS says.

“Smaller municipalities, towns, and rural areas showed an even higher trend towards outreach services compared to shelters in major urban centres,” the ACWS said.

Shelters provided more than 27,500 referrals to other non-profits and organizations during the 2020-21 year, ACWS says.

Shelters provided services to 35,374 women, children, and seniors in the province last year, including more than 2,400 safety plans for women experiencing domestic violence.

According to ACWS, the average length of stay in an emergency shelter was 18 days — consistent with pre-pandemic data.

The spike in demand prompted the ACWS to recommend to government partners that funding to shelters be increased to ensure aging buildings can still be accessible to all and so that trained staff can continue to be hired to deliver an increasing number of services.

“Shelters need appropriate space to deliver these programs, as well as alternate delivery options,” the report said. “It’s not just the buildings that are important. Every building needs trained, caring people delivering supported evidence-based programming within.”

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