Crowded women’s shelters across Greater Vancouver are struggling to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as they brace for an expected jump in the number of women and families seeking refuge and supports.
Shelters, which generally support women and families living in poverty or homelessness, and transition houses, which serve those experiencing domestic violence, are both anticipating increased demand as the virus spreads.
The impacts of the virus — layoffs, job losses and social isolation — are expected to result in greater homelessness and increased domestic violence and abuse, experts say.
At the same time communal living, dining and bathing areas mean shelters and transition homes are a high risk for the spread of COVID-19.
“It seems that we need more of those shelters now than ever before,” said Marina Adshade, a professor of economics with a focus on women in the workforce at the University of British Columbia.
Shelters across the Lower Mainland, which often operate other programs during the day, are already shifting limited resources to ensure they are as safe as possible for the women they support.
At the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, that means extending lunch service hours and only allowing 50 of the approximately 100 lunch regulars into the drop-in centre at a time to maintain social distancing.
Staff hours are also being redirected towards cleaning and away from some essential support services to ensure the centre and adjoining shelter are safe for the 120 or so women who come there every day.
“We want to make sure their food security is protected,” said acting executive director Kate Gibson. Staff are sanitizing every half hour and meeting women upstairs in their own rooms rather than in the shelter offices. “We don’t want to have a big outbreak here in case women can’t get the meals they rely on.”
Gibson says the risk of infection poses big challenges. “How do you isolate a woman who is homeless?”
There are 57 beds, always all full, in the shelter. Each day, they turn away 30 to 40 women, she estimates, simply for lack of space in their shared shelter areas.
The challenge for shelter operators is increased because many women using the services may have compromised immune systems and be at higher risk of the disease.
“There are many health issues for these women, apart from the coronavirus,” said Jila Mirlashari, who researches public health in the UBC faculty of medicine.
Some clients have substance use disorders, lacked consistent medical care or face other factors that increase their risk of contracting the virus.
The added stressors of homelessness or experiences of abuse can suppress these women’s immune systems and past traumatic experiences with the medical system may make them reluctant to seek medical attention if they do become sick.
“We don’t want this pandemic to make them more marginalized,” said Mirlashari.
Across Canada, an estimated 620 women and children are turned away from shelters each night, about 80 per cent due to lack of capacity.
“We’ve got lots of people who are very precariously housed, if housed at all, and what’s very frightening is, what happens next? That’s the question that’s looming large,” Gibson said.
Communal living areas in both shelters and transition homes are also essential to building trust between women and with support workers. They help build community in the tightly packed shelters, where more and more women may turn as they bear the brunt of job losses or risk of domestic violence.
Maintaining social support in the age of social distancing is a priority for Lanna Many Grey Horses, manager of Powell Place and Springhouse Shelters for women and children in Vancouver. Together they have 82 beds, and often operate at more than 100 per cent capacity.
“We spend a lot of time building relationships with women, so we’re sitting in close proximity to women engaging in different social activities,” she said. “So we have to do the best that we can to increase our awareness and making sure those spaces are sanitized. And that takes away from some of the services we would regularly do.” Services like counselling and employment advising could fall by the wayside.
Shelters, under the umbrella of BC Housing have their own pandemic plans but cleaning products are in short supply, both Gibson and Many Grey Horses note.
It’s also only a matter of time until staffing shortages hit as employees fall ill or have to care for a family member.
In a survey of 45 communities by the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness this week, 59 per cent said shelter staffing shortages were a critical issue in their pandemic response, while 48 per cent said it was a lack of essential cleaning supplies.
Transition houses typically shelter women and their children in communal living arrangements for up to three months. Second-stage transition houses provide the opportunity to stay for up to two years. There are 29 safe homes and 70 transition houses across the province, according to BC Housing.
BC Society of Transition Houses board chair Lisa Rupert said urgent co-ordinated action is needed so transition houses and shelters can share supplies, best practices and other resources.
Ottawa has announced federal funding to support the most vulnerable, including women’s shelters, during the pandemic, but no details have been released.
When asked by The Tyee about B.C.’s strategy for preventing outbreaks in women’s shelters, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the province is focusing on community-level initiatives in each health authority.
She did not provide any specifics, but noted B.C. is looking at additional spaces that shelters could expand into to allow for proper social distancing.
“There are some plans, particularly in certain communities about how to support both women shelters, but all of our shelter system,” said Henry during a press conference. “We’re working with the providers to ensure that we can protect people in those systems [and to] make sure we have improved hygiene and other measures to support people.”
Rupert fears that if the COVID-19 issues can’t be addressed, women will feel pressure to stay in dangerous situations rather than going to transition houses.
“Women may not access the help they need right now because they’re going to be afraid of going to transition houses because of the fear of communal living during this pandemic,” said Rupert.
The pandemic is highlighting just how insufficient current capacity is and the importance of having a place to go when home is not a safe harbour.
“It’s no different than the hospitals,” she said. “There just isn’t give in the system.”