Transition houses in Nova Scotia see spike in calls amid COVID-19

Transition houses in Nova Scotia aren’t seeing notable increases in people trying to access shelters as protocols related to COVID-19 increase, but they are experiencing a spike in calls.

Shiva Nourpanah, the provincial coordinator of the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia, said workers are getting more calls for advice, counselling and safety planning.

“The predictions by experts in the field is that in any moment of heightened social emotion there has been seen a spike in domestic violence, sadly,” Nourpanah said in a phone interview.

“So absolutely, expectations are that violence will increase in families and households, which may already be prone to that.”

One of the challenges in Nova Scotia with the restrictions in place in an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19, which include the closure of schools, daycares and many businesses, is that for people who live in homes that aren’t safe or prone to violence, there are now few respite options.

The Halifax YWCA operates a program that helps women leave violent situations. Executive director Miia Suokonautio said the program’s coordinator has recently seen her entire caseload go silent.

The lack of calls reflects how difficult it is for people to make plans right now, she said.

“You don’t get a break,” she said. “He’s not at work.”

Suokonautio said they don’t proactively contact women because it could inadvertently tip off a person to the woman’s plans. She knows of one case where a woman was in the process of preparing to leave and then put things on hold.

Research and experience shows that the greatest risk comes as women are preparing to leave or reporting someone, said Suokonautio. In times like these, where there might not be many opportunities for privacy to prepare, laying low can be a survival strategy.

Miia Suokonautio is the executive director of the YWCA Halifax. (CBC)

At the YWCA, the sense is people are delaying leaving and that a spike in calls could come when people begin returning to work and it becomes easier for people to be out and about, said Suokonautio.

Nourpanah said transition houses, like everywhere else, are adhering to the chief medical officer of health’s orders, which include social distancing. Houses no longer do communal meals and group activities and workshops have been suspended.

Outreach work has been moved almost exclusively to the phone, which is something that can be a challenge in rural communities, she said.

“They would be physically outreaching to women who had called them who would need support,” Nourpanah said.

The challenges of the changing times also extend to the workers in the houses, who, like many people, are dealing with issues related to transportation and child care, she said.

“Those are the issues which are a source of constant worry and anxiety for the executive directors,” she said.

Despite the challenges, both women want the public to know their services remain in place and ready to help.

‘People are ready to respond’

Suokonautio said if people don’t feel comfortable calling, they can text. If situations are particularly precarious, services remain ready to leap into action, and that includes the police, she said.

“I think the message is there are people ready to respond,” she said. “If you are assessing that laying low is what you need, we won’t judge that, but if you feel like you need to get out, nobody has stopped providing services.”

Although transition houses have suspended accepting physician donations, Nourpanah said they are still accepting financial donations, which right now would most likely go toward cleaning supplies. Many transition houses are also looking for local caterers that could produce single-serve meals, she said.

A spokesperson for the province’s Status of Women office said they’re in regular contact with each transition house “to ensure that as issues arise, we can respond with resources and supports.”

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