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“This situation is forcing victims into captivity”: What it’s like to run a women’s shelter in Toronto right now

By Zena Chaudhry| Photography by Daniel Neuhaus
“This situation is forcing victims into captivity”: What it’s like to run a women’s shelter in Toronto right now

When I graduated from law school a few years ago, my plan was to work as a human rights lawyer. But then a family member went through an abusive situation, and I saw how disjointed and broken the system is. I realized this was somewhere I could make a difference. So I founded Sakeenah Homes, a women’s shelter in Mississauga, in 2018. Many of the people we serve are from the South Asian and Muslim communities—we provide halal meals and make sure there is a place to pray every morning—but we are happy to help anyone who needs our services.

We are a relatively small shelter, with just 12 beds. Even before Covid-19, one of the things that set us apart was that we do a lot of remote work with people all over the country. Our case workers chat with people over the phone or on video conference. We provide everything from counselling to food distribution to emergency shelter to safety planning. I guess in some ways our work has prepared us for the situation we’re in now.

I spent the last two weeks in quarantine. I was visiting a friend in California in early March when I first realized the gravity of the Covid-19 crisis. I watched the prime minister speak and thought, Oh wow, I have to get home. I checked in on our log books at work and saw that we were getting three times as many calls as we normally do from women in distress. Not that I couldn’t have predicted that.

Periods of crisis are always especially bad for people in abusive relationships. It’s an incredibly stressful time—we’re dealing with health anxiety and significant job loss—and stress is a trigger for abusers. What’s unique about the Covid-19 situation, as opposed to a more typical economic downturn, is that it is literally forcing people into captivity. The opportunities to go work, to visit with friends, to go to school—these are often the only reprieve for women and children who live with their abusers. Now they’re trapped inside. Not only that, but abusers can use the crisis as justification for exerting control over food and finances. That might be taking away credit cards or withholding food. Covid-19 is writing them a blank cheque.

It’s the same in shelters all over the country: violent attacks are up, distress calls are up. A lot of this is familiar, but a lot is specific to Covid-19. The other day, we got a call from a woman whose husband was abusing her. He was using the pandemic as an excuse to send the kids to her parents’ place, and had told their family and friends that she had tested positive, even though that wasn’t true. She was able to call us from a neighbour’s house when he went out to get groceries. We went over a basic safety plan, helping her figure out how she would escape if the abuse became life-threatening. It’s tough because people have so little time to themselves: she had to get off the phone abruptly when her husband returned.

We also got a call from a teenage girl who told us that her dad was depriving her and her sister of food. Before Covid-19, they had been able to eat at school and at friends’ houses, but now that’s not an option. We were able to organize a dropoff of fresh food in a bush by the mailbox in their neighbourhood. We alerted the authorities, but we weren’t able to get the girls’ names or exact address. Another call came from a woman whose husband had locked her out of her house with her children. We were able to put her up in a hotel room, which we have been doing a lot more often due to the lack of space at the shelter. In a normal crisis, we might consider putting in more beds, but for obvious social-distancing reasons, we can’t do that. We have been full for the last three weeks.

Most of our staff are working remotely, other than the house managers. We were lucky to get support from a local food business, which has been dropping off pre-packaged halal meals—that’s one less thing for staff to deal with. It’s hard, though. People come to us in such desperate and vulnerable situations. “We can’t even give them a hug,” one of our staff said the other day. At the shelter, we try to give people a sense of community, show them that they are not alone and that there is a life for them after they escape their abusers. We have activities that are geared toward bonding and having a good time: movie nights, art therapy sessions, talent shows. We have had to cancel all those for the time being, and our clients are feeling the loss. One of the things I worry about is that with all the additional hardship and uncertainty, many people might be tempted to return to an abusive household—a “devil you know” kind of thing.

I was happy to see Justin Trudeau announce funding directed specifically at women’s shelters. We are privately funded, so I’m not sure if any of the money will come to us, but either way, it’s important to have our prime minister recognize the victims of domestic violence as a vulnerable population. That’s true regardless of how things appear. Some of the people we help have beautiful homes and cars and cottages, and people think, What could they have to complain about? The reality is, now more than ever, that we don’t know what happens behind closed doors.

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