What It’s Like Working At A Women’s Shelter During The Pandemic

A frontline worker shares how the pandemic has impacted women living and working at shelters.

A Muslim woman wearing a floral white and pink headscarf stands in front of a blurred background.

(Photo: Courtesy of Shiba Anjum)

Lockdowns have been especially difficult for women living in abusive relationships. A national survey by Women’s Shelter Canada of women admitted to shelter or transitional homes during the pandemic found that 16 per cent of those surveyed reported “much more severe” violence at home, and 32 per cent said that the violence they experienced was “somewhat” more severe. When they do want to seek help or leave an abusive spouse, women often find themselves with no privacy to make phone calls or send emails to local shelters. Some may also worry whether they’re putting themselves or their children at risk of contracting COVID-19 by leaving home.

These are just a few of many worries faced by women in abusive relationships during the pandemic, says Shiba Anjum, the operations manager at Nisa Homes, a women’s shelter with six locations across Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta. She shares what the pandemic has been like for her as a frontline worker—and for the women she helps.

What services does Nisa Homes provide and who do you serve?

We’re a transitional home, so women usually come to us from emergency shelters and they stay up to three months depending on their situation. Our mandate is homelessness, so we help women who are homeless or are at the risk of homelessness because of abuse, violence, poverty, or a combination of any of these situations. We help women with basic things like applying for financial assistance, looking for a job, building their resume and interview skills and enrolling their children in school. Each Nisa Homes team has an operations manager, caseworker, supportive counsellor and childcare worker who work closely to support each client. A supportive counsellor helps women process their trauma, while a childcare worker will help the mother fulfill children’s needs during their stay at the home, through activities like art therapy, self-care and self-esteem workshops. Our clientele is mainly new immigrants, refugees, Muslim women and those with language barriers, but we also help women of other cultures and religions. We take a trauma-informed approach, meaning that we meet our clients where they’re at and our services are culturally sensitive.

What does an average day look like for you?

When I first come to the home, I check in with the women who are there to see how they’re doing and what their morning was like. Some will be getting their kids ready for online school, so one of the things that I do is make sure that the internet is working properly, because we have about 10 to 12 devices on that network at any given time. When a client is moving out to a new apartment or home, we arrange an Uber for them and try to connect them to services in their local community, such as the nearest food bank, hospital, grocery store or public school.

What were your thoughts when the pandemic first hit? How did the shelter adjust?

The thing that we were really concerned about at the time was keeping our homes clean and having hand sanitizer and masks around. At the time, everything was sold out: there were no tissues, paper towels, Lysol wipes or cleaning supplies in grocery stores. We put a call out to our donors asking for these supplies and the community responded.

We had an existing pandemic playbook with policies and procedures to follow, but it wasn’t specific to COVID-19. We began working with a couple of public health organizations and kept up to date with the health guidelines issued each day. Other times, we made up policies on the go: how do we distance in a shared living area? How do we tell residents that they can’t share food with each other or that their kids can’t watch TV together? It was hard to communicate and it was hard to explain. And on top of that, we each had our own homes to take care of and our own children to look after. It was chaos.

How has the pandemic impacted women living in shelters?

When I look at the residents in our home, they’re coming with added layers of trauma on top of dealing with the anxiety of the pandemic. It’s very hard to verbalize what these women are going through. There’s an increased level of anxiety, fear and confusion and there’s a lot of mistrust. They have already been hurt by people who they trusted the most. And now, coming to us, we have all these cleanliness and hygiene rules they have to follow, like families can’t cook together or they have to socially distance in the common living area. They might be feeling that they’ve come from one restrictive environment to another. And then for women who are newly immigrated or don’t speak English, I don’t know what they understand about the pandemic or where they’re getting their information from.

Something we’ve seen across all our homes is the number of phone calls have increased dramatically in the last six to eight months. We saw a 220 per cent increase in phone calls across all six of our locations from women and children worried about the safety in their own homes. But at the same time, we’re also seeing a decline in the number of women who choose to come to the shelter. And the reasons for that could be anything from stay-at-home orders to their spouses being home all the time so they don’t know how to contact us or when to leave safely. We’ve had people ask if we can WhatsApp or text them, because maybe their emails or phone calls are being monitored. There was a client with three kids who was trying to decide whether she wanted to come into the centre and she didn’t know whether it was safer to bring her kids to the shelter in a pandemic or stay with her abuser.

Is there a story of a woman you’ve helped that sticks out to you?

There was a woman who had come to Canada who didn’t know English, knew nothing about the immigration system and her permanent resident card was going to expire. She traveled alone from her country to Canada to have her permanent resident card renewed, and she lived with a family who she was told would help her renew her card. But instead of helping her, the family exploited her, making her do household chores, preventing her from leaving the house, and delaying her application. One of her friends reached out to us and we got her to Nisa Homes. We helped her file a PR renewal application and hired a lawyer who could advocate on her behalf. She also enrolled in ESL classes and she was an excellent cook, so we put her in touch with restaurants and she was able to eventually get a job as a chef. When she first came, she didn’t know how to answer emails, phone calls or use public transit and now, she has her own place, a job and is self sufficient.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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