Women Find Stability As United Way-Supported Shelter Adapts To Pandemic
Finding a new way forward.
So many people are in need of a safe place to call home. So many that, when you choose to help, you have a difficult choice to make.
Do you help as many people as possible knowing that what you can give is less than what they need, or do you give more to fewer people?
Shelters often try to help as many as they can, giving people without anywhere else to go a small bed in a crowded room, one night at a time because, for many of them, that’s better than living in the bush or on the street.
For some, a shelter is a safer place than their own home. With household violence on the rise as people are asked to stay inside, organizations like United Way-funded Cowichan Women Against Violence (CWAV) are even more vital.
Among other services, CWAV runs a Women’s Night Shelter in Duncan where women in need can stay for a night.
While people like Adria Borghesan, the shelter’s manager, provide so much more than that, Adria knew that many of the women who use the shelter would need more before they could see a future for themselves.
Due to recent changes at the shelter because of the pandemic, that has begun to happen.
Before the pandemic, the shelter’s doors would open at 5:30 p.m., with clients having to leave by 7:30 in the morning.
There were 15 beds in one large room, and if there were no beds available by the time you got there, you were out of luck.
Still, the shelter would see up to 26 people a night, providing supports and services but no bed for those who weren’t ready to sleep inside.
“Shelters are hectic,” says Adria. “Having to sleep in a common area, having to defend your stuff, having to leave each morning, a lot of trauma, a lot of stress, a lot of heightened behaviours.”
“[People are] in survival mode every single night, and it’s like every single night having to start from scratch, having to de-escalate people, getting them to settle indoors.”
“With COVID, we drastically and quickly had to change,” she says.
First, the shelter had to close, but staff continued to provide support. Tents were distributed so that women could sleep in the parking lot, and staff would help clients take them down each morning. Later, in cooperation with the Cowichan Housing Association’s task force, tents could remain up in another parking lot, with more services available. At first, Adria says she was devastated.
“It felt like such a shame that the most vulnerable people in our community we’re putting in tents in the middle of a very visible parking lot.”
But, in some important ways, the tent situation was an improvement for clients. They had their own living space with a door they could zip shut. They didn’t have to pack up and leave every day, and a variety of services were available to them without having to travel.
However, as September hit, a cold-weather solution was needed, and the shelter decided to open back up, but in a very different way. Rather than offering 15 beds in a room, eight small suites were constructed in the shelter. This allows for social distancing and other pandemic safety requirements and provides women with a space of their own.
Importantly, the shelter doesn’t require their eight clients to leave in the morning. Their small suite is theirs, and it has made so much difference, says Adria.
“It’s amazing, just that little bit of privacy and autonomy. And the little individual rooms are beautiful. People are doing their own artwork to decorate.
“It’s really so much ownership over the space. Clients do their own cleaning of their rooms and the common areas, the bathrooms … and it’s a part of that life skills, being responsible,” she says.
What’s more, as Adria has watched the shelter’s clients settle into having stable shelter and gain some peace, she’s seen them begin to look to their futures.
“I got a letter yesterday from a client … she wanted advice on how staff got this job, and how she could see herself doing this kind of job,” recounts Adria.
“For me, it was probably the best letter I’ve ever had. We have lots of feedback about the survival aspect, like, ‘You believed me, you helped us when nobody else could,’ but to see somebody thinking about that forward planning, and wanting to change her life and being able to be in a space where she could think about her future rather than in the current now all the time, just trying to survive moment to moment, that was really amazing to me.
“And she’s 52 years old, and saying this is the first time she could imagine getting to that next stage in life.”
CWAV is supported by Canada’s COVID-19 Economic Response - Reaching Home grant through United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island to – funds that were used to help women and families pay bills and keep their homes, as well as helping the shelter’s transition to provide services while staying safe during the pandemic.
This move to small, individual sleeping suites has been a success for clients who have used it, says Adria. But at the same time, there are many more women you need help.
“In some ways, it’s excellent that we’ve moved to these pods or separated rooms in the shelter, but it drastically reduces our capacity,” says Jan Bate, Resource Development Director for CWAV. “And the need is still there. I think it can be up to 200 women who access referrals on a day-by-day basis over the year … but only eight can sleep in the shelter overnight. So there is a huge gap, and a huge need, so we are working with our funding partners to address that need.”
The plan is for various types of housing to be available, from shelter beds to small suites like these, as well as more permanent solutions. The plan is that one day, we won’t have to decide between giving a little to many, or more to a few.