Women's Shelters Canada releases Shelter Voices survey focusing on COVID-19 impacts

"The demands on shelters—in terms of capacity and in dealing with more severe cases of abuse—have only increased as the pandemic continues.” – Lise Martin, Executive Director of Women's Shelters Canada

Ottawa (7 December 2020) — Women’s Shelters Canada (WSC) has released the results of its seventh national survey of transition houses and shelters. The report, Shelter Voices 2020: The Impact of COVID-19 on VAW Shelters and Transition Houses, is a special issue which focuses on how shelters and transition houses, as well as, those fleeing violence have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. It looks at how the shelters and transition houses have adapted and what plans they intend to keep in place post-pandemic.

The survey found that the majority of shelters had a decrease in crisis calls and requests for admittance during the first 3 months of COVID-19. However, after lockdown measures were eased, the majority of shelters had an increase in both calls and requests for admittance. Alarmingly, half of the shelters saw an increase in the severity of violence being experienced (stabbing, strangulation and broken bones).

Demands on shelters have increased as the pandemic continues

“These findings have confirmed what we’ve been hearing anecdotally from women’s shelters across the country since March,” said Lise Martin, Executive Director of Women’s Shelters Canada. “We knew that women were having trouble reaching out to shelters when they were isolating at home with their abuser. The demands on shelters—in terms of capacity and in dealing with more severe cases of abuse—have only increased as the pandemic continues.”

The report, which gathered responses from both rural and urban areas, every province and territory, and Indigenous shelters and transition houses, found that perpetrators were using the pandemic restrictions as a strategy to further abuse and control women. “Isolation is an abuser’s dream,” said Martin. “Shelters have been seeing more cases of survivors reporting controlling behaviour and coercive control. Government stay-at-home orders inadvertently made things worse for women, with abusers even threatening to give women or their children COVID.”

Shelters/transition houses adapting to the pandemic

The survey revealed that over one-quarter of the shelters and transition houses found their ability to provide services to women and children fleeing violence was impacted to a great extent by the pandemic and one-third indicated they had been impacted to a moderate extent. Many increased their outreach services by using technology to reach survivors unable to physically come to the shelters to receive services or accommodation. There were difficulties encountered in remote and rural areas given the limits of Wi-Fi and cell reception. Physical adaptations had to be made in order to ensure social distancing and staffing schedules were adjusted to incorporate the childcare responsibilities of staff when schools and childcare centres were closed.

NUPGE highlighting the need for action

NUPGE continues to support Women’s Shelters Canada (WSC). It has provided financial support for the Shelter Voices survey since 2012. The National Union and its Advisory Committee on Women’s Issues has been highlighting the need for action on domestic violence especially during the pandemic and has written to the Prime Minister, as well as, the provincial and territorial premiers with recommendations which include substantial funding and a National Action Plan to end domestic violence.

“Domestic violence has been a pandemic within the pandemic!” said Larry Brown, President of the National Union of Public and General Employees. “The issues including the increased severity of violence that have arisen due to the COVID-19 restrictions are alarming. We must have a national action plan to address domestic violence and gender violence to ensure that this cycle of abuse ends. Shelters and transition houses must have sustainable funding to ensure that they have the tools to assist those fleeing violence and that staff are appropriately paid for the incredible work they do!”


The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE