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Safety and shelter for women a year-round concern in Cowichan

Just like resources, donations required year-round
Cowichan Women Against Violence Society’s women’s shelter is based at the old VIU buildings — but only until September 2022. (Google maps)

The holiday season is stressful for many, and even more so for victims of domestic violence, says Adria Borghesan, the program supervisor for Cowichan Women Against Violence Society’s shelter and housing programs.

Borghesan said when COVID-19 first began, it forced many victims of abuse into staying at home, often trapping them with their abusers and without the help they need.

“It was a horrible time,” Borghesan said. “They don’t have their usual outlets and don’t have their usual support and for a lot of women they’re stuck at home with their abusers and there’s less opportunity to seek help and stay with other people.”

The restrictions eased and many sought the help they need but during the holidays, Borghesan said she sees a shift.

“Shelters are pretty quiet at this time of year,” she said. “It’s the one time of year families want to try again, will open doors, bring loved ones back, with a huge amount of stress though.”

At the same time, donations are at their peak.

“The response from community is incredible this time of year,” she said. “We get so much stuff, we end up drowning in stuff and it’s really hard working with unhoused women where it’s almost too much at one time and it ends up that litter is being put back in the community because women have to carry it with them everywhere.”

What would be helpful, she said, is if those willing to donate would consider stretching it out over the year.

“Everything kind of dries up for February, March and onward,” she said. “How do we keep that motivation, momentum but spread it out over the year? Especially things like razors and underwear and just the bare basics.”

Inevitably though, the number of women needing shelter and/or services picks up again in the New Year.

“I think, especially for women, tensions are really high this time of year. There’s always so much expectation about the holidays and family stuff. With it brings all these feelings of failure and you’re not good enough and all these things. It’s so much energy just to suck it up and get through it and do everything you need to do and then this huge crash after.”

That’s when the shelter begins to see more clients.

Thanks to COVID, capacity has been halved in the shelters, due to health protocols, Borghesan noted. More and more people need the services but there’s not nearly as much room and funding for more isn’t as easy to come by as earlier in the pandemic.

“We had a pretty amazing response last year. Governments really stepped up, there was a lot of funding available for COVID support knowing we had less capacity,” she said. “It’s dried up this year, it feels like there’s so much less available. For unhoused women it’s actually worse right now than it ever was before. Long gone are the days you can go sit in the library or the community centre, even Tim Hortons to just get a break for a couple hours to just warm up. We’ve lost all these places now.”

COVID and COVID-related staff shortages and cuts are simply closing doors.

The women’s shelter moved to the old VIU campus near Superstore in September but they’re only there until September 2022.

“It’s amazing. It’s totally transformed how we’re doing shelters,” Borghesan said. “It’s been life-changing for our women.”

Even so, the pandemic has put limits on capacity. Shelter staff are constantly looking for ways to do more outreach. The community really needs it, Borghesan said.

“There’s so little [housing] in the community right now. There’s such a disconnect and people aren’t seeing that. What’s really scary for me is that it’s not just the typical homeless people on the streets anymore. Families are living in hotels. Everyone’s getting this push out because of high rental costs etc. It’s unbelievable how many people are getting affected but we are continuing to scapegoat the really visible perceptions of the drug addicted and people causing the problems, which is really 10 per cent of the overall picture. It’s just shocking. We’re seeing women and people in our community with horrible cases of frostbite. This should not be happening. We so desperately need more housing,” she said.