The COVID-19 pandemic has not only put a huge strain on women experiencing violence from the men in their lives, it’s also stretching Women’s Resources, the local agency that serves them, to the breaking point. Many women are now trapped in isolation with their abusers, and even if they are able to find a chance to leave, the agency has to find them a place to quarantine for 14 days before they can enter the shelter in Lindsay.
Urban shelters are seeing increases of several hundred per cent in demand for their services, but in rural Kawartha Lakes, services are actually down 40 to 50 per cent, says Lori Watson, executive director of Women’s Resources. That’s not because the abuse is easing off; far from it, she says.
“The violence is getting more intense, and it seems to be escalating.” The drop in demand for services is coming because many rural women are now in isolation along with their abuser, who often also takes the car keys to ensure she can`t leave.
Watson describes one woman who called and said “‘I’ve got 20 minutes to get out because I don’t have any other opportunity,’” says Watson. At least that woman was aware that Women’s Resources’ services are still available during the pandemic, which isn’t the case for a woman whose abuser prevents her from using a phone or computer. If a woman doesn’t have transportation, in normal times the agency could send a taxi to pick her up, but now that the man abusing her is likely off work and therefore around all day, there’s no way to help her get out.
The women who are getting away are largely doing so thanks to the police, who, Watson says, have the personal cell phone numbers of the agency’s managers. But even then, the survivors can’t be taken straight to the shelter; staff have to find them a safe place to isolate until it’s clear they haven’t been infected with COVID-19. There have been no cases of the coronavirus in the shelter, and the organization has been able to adapt where needed, finding another place to stay for one woman using its services so that she could continue going out to work.
Although the organization has detailed plans to ensure its operations continue during almost any conditions imaginable, “this has tested every what-if scenario we’ve ever seen,” Watson says. She estimates the pandemic has cost the agency $90,000 already for cleaning supplies, setting up alternate accommodation and the extra staff time involved. And with the possibility of a second wave of infection looming, she says, “We’re going to be dealing with this for at least the next year.”
At the same time, the pandemic has also wiped out virtually all of the agency’s major fundraising sources, including its marquee concert with Dean Brody in March. The annual trip raffle, which depends on sales at public places and the concert, saw ticket sales plummet by 60 per cent from previous years. And Vicky’s Values, the thriving second-hand shop that contributes more than $20,000 a month to the agency’s bottom line, has also been closed during the emergency period.
While Watson and her staff are working through applications for government support, they also worry about where the money to pay for the sweeping emergency measures will come from. “What will the impact be on the government’s ability to support services like ours in the future?” Watson wonders. Women’s Resources already has to fundraise between $300,000 and $400,000 every year on top of the money it receives from governments.
For now, though, knowing how critical the agency’s free counselling and support services, emergency shelter and online resources are to women in need, “We’re managing through the crisis,” Watson says. “The staff are just an incredible group of women who are so committed to the work we do. Everyone is showing up and doing what they can.”