Code words and hotel stays: Crisis agencies adapt to helping domestic violence victims in pandemic

By | August 5, 2020

Winnipeg crisis agencies have come up with new ways to help victims of domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The West Central Women’s Resource Centre offered code words women could say over the phone to tip off a support worker — but not their abuser — if they need help.

The agency began sheltering women in hotel rooms this spring if it was the safest option, and turned one staff person into a full-time support for victims of domestic violence.

Willow Place, Winnipeg’s largest women’s shelter, hired an housing coordinator to find women shelter, and started a 24-hour text messaging crisis line.

Meanwhile, NorWest Co-Op Community Health launched a new phone line, which it wants to operate for the long-term.

Agencies needed to be inventive to help people trapped at home with an abusive partner, said Lorie English, executive director of the West Central Women’s Resource Centre.

Self-isolation dangerous for victims

“When you tell people to stay home and to isolate, in cases where there is violence in the home, you’re actually increasing the risk of the danger that they’re experiencing there,” she said.

“We had to get really creative about how we could give women avenues to ask for help without further increasing their risk of violence.”

As one example, the centre developed certain words or phrases an individual could recite over the phone that said they needed help — without saying the word. 

“It was not a thing we had really been using before because most of the work we did with women was in person,” English said.

They began offering hotel stays after securing extra funding. The centre realized that women needed more places to stay, after shelters temporarily limited capacity to adhere to physical distancing.

“What we have found is that some women succeed far more placed in hotels, and so we are hoping to be able to explore that as a continuing model,” English said.

Her resource centre is assisting at least five new domestic violence victims every week, which is an increase from before the pandemic, she said.

At Willow’s Place, staff slashed capacity from 20-25 victims of domestic violence at a time to 17 people, said executive director Marcie Wood.

Marcie Wood, executive director of Willow Place, said the shelter is seeing a spike in demand for its crisis line and outreach programming from victims of domestic violence. (John Einarson/CBC)

While those limitations are in place, the shelter is witnessing a spike in the number of people calling the crisis line and seeking outreach programming.

She adds counsellors have a five-person limit on the number of outreach clients they can help, in addition to their duties answering the crisis line and helping people at the shelter.

“We’ve had to cap it at that just because they just can’t manage to do anymore,” Wood said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has strained families, and unfortunately, Wood said, that’s likely bearing out in cases of violence. She said it’s unfortunate that shelters don’t have space to admit more people in crisis. 

She hopes the shelter’s new housing co-ordinator, supported through a federal grant, will remove people from abusive situations.

Deena Brock, provincial co-ordinator at the Manitoba Association of Women’s Shelters, commended the shelters for adapting. They are striving to keep the guests separate to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Some group counselling had to be called off as a result.

She said the Winnipeg shelters were eerily quiet in the first weeks of the pandemic, but have either approached or hit their capacity ever since. It makes her wonder about the people being turned away, she said.

“When they’re full, where do people go?”


Anyone facing immediate danger should call 911. Some other supports available in Manitoba:

  • Manitoba government’s Stop the Violence program: 1-877-977-0007.
  • Ikwe Widdjiitiwin 24/7 toll-free crisis line: 1-800-362-3344.
  • Willow Place 24/7 toll-free crisis line: call 204-615-0311 or text 204-792-5302.

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