Domestic violence rates are climbing to dangerous new heights as the coronavirus pandemic wears on, and the Saskatchewan shelters offering victims refuge have had to slash spaces to comply with safe distancing protocols.
While the 15 emergency shelters across the province are all different in setup and layout, the Provincial Association of Transition Houses and Services (PATHS) estimates they’re operating at between 50 and 75 per cent capacity.
The organization’s director of research and communication, Crystal Giesbrecht, said not as many people were showing up when the novel coronavirus first arrived in the province, but eight months in, that’s changed.
“People may be getting to a point where they want to leave or they’re looking for safety,” she said. “The shelters, once again, are getting to a point where they’re getting full and many are having waitlists.
“Do we need more? Absolutely. And now with restricted spaces, that’s more of a concern.”
Pre-pandemic, indicators of domestic and family violence in Saskatchewan have put the province at some of the highest rates in the country.
Giesbrecht said the fact that most of the shelters were frequently at or over capacity has typically reflected that, although it is well known that domestic violence is underreported and many victims do stay in dangerous situations.
Saskatchewan RCMP, which polices much of the province outside of the major urban centres, have been tracking victims intimate partner violence in its jurisdictions.
From January to September 2019, there were 3,259. From January to September 2020, there were 3,638 — a 12 per cent increase.
A regional breakdown shows that spike as much more pronounced in the north recently. Year over year from July to September, the number of victims has gone up 23 per cent.
On Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation, one of the reserves with the most overcrowded households in the country, there have been 1,148 domestic disturbance calls in the past four months.
“We have young families caught in the middle there. They’ve got nowhere to go,” said Chief Ronald Mitsuing.
Makwa Sahgaiehcan has applied to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and to the federal government for funding to establish an emergency shelter, but in the meantime, the chief said he’s fielding calls and texts from people looking to get out of their situations.
“When people get violent with each other, we need to separate them for a bit,” said Mitsuing, who added it’s getting to the point where he thinks some families should be moved out of the community into hotel or motel rooms for their own well-being.
“We’re kind of overwhelmed right now,” he said.
There are more drugs circulating in the community in recent months, according to Mitsuing, who said increased substance abuse is making the violence worse.
It lines up with what shelter workers are seeing in the clients who are coming in.
Nola Mahingen, the director of the five-room, 22-bed Safe Haven in the Yorkton area, which hasn’t had to turn anyone away during the pandemic so far, said usually the shelter gets victims of domestic violence. Now, it’s seeing more victims of family violence.
Providing help and treatment has become difficult, she said. More people have been using drugs right before seeking help and the turnover has been inconsistent.
“We’re certainly scared or a little apprehensive when it comes to taking clients that we’re not sure where they came from and what they’re doing,” she said, adding that’s due to a mix of the increasingly unpredictable situations staff are encountering as well as the pandemic.
With winter approaching, she’s unsure what to expect.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be less busy or if we’re going to be full all the time,” Mahingen said. “Either way, we’ll adjust.”
Service providers and police agree that people experiencing domestic violence or who feel at risk of experiencing domestic violence should not delay seeking help due to the pandemic.
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