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Many shelters for victims of abuse see increases in crisis calls and demand for external supports in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic

Released: 2022-04-12

In 2020/2021, there were 557 residential facilities (shelters) in Canada that were primarily mandated to serve victims of abuse. The unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was recounted across many facilities. Overall, about one in three (34%) facilities reported being impacted to a great extent by the pandemic, overall, while more than 4 in 10 (44%) facilities were impacted to a moderate extent.

Accommodation capacity was the greatest pandemic-related challenge faced by shelters, and with just under 47,000 admissions in the first year of the pandemic in 2020/2021, facilities saw a drop in admissions. However, many reported that the number of crisis calls and demand for support or services for victims outside their facilities had increased.

The pandemic has had a profound impact on the lives of many Canadians. In an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, several public health directives were implemented at various stages. While these directives differed across regions and changed over time, they generally included quarantine-related measures and lockdowns that led to school and business closures and virtual work arrangements. Canadians spent more time at home and, with financial strains and increased isolation, concerns about domestic violence and barriers to accessing supports rose.

In Canada, 8% of Canadians who participated in a web panel survey conducted during the early months of the pandemic reported that they were very or extremely concerned about the possibility of violence in the home. However, compared with 2019, the number of victims of police-reported family violence was not notably different from the previous year, with a slight increase (+1.5%) in 2020. Reports from early stages of the pandemic found that the pandemic created additional barriers for victims of domestic violence. Specifically, there was a reluctance for victims to seek help due to fears of contracting the virus while doing so, confusion over the impact of business closures and distancing protocols on shelter accessibility, other challenges related to COVID-19 protocols, and a preoccupation with other stressors such job losses and school closures.

Today, results from the 2020/2021 cycle of the Survey of Residential Facilities for Victims of Abuse are being published in the Juristat article "Canadian residential facilities for victims of abuse, 2020/2021." The article includes information on how facilities were affected by the pandemic, the measures they took to minimize its impact on their clients, and the extent to which their ability to continue serving victims of abuse was interrupted. An overview of the characteristics of these shelters and their clientele on a snapshot date is also presented, along with the types of challenges they faced outside of pandemic-related issues. The survey snapshot date was April 14, 2021. It is a pre-determined business day meant to represent a typical day of operations for facilities across Canada.

Facilities expand services during the pandemic to continue serving victims of abuse

The extent of impact that the pandemic has had on shelters for victims of abuse varied across regions and pandemic phases. Overall, about one in three (34%) facilities reported being impacted to a great extent by the pandemic, while more than four in ten (44%) were impacted to a moderate extent. More than half (53%) of shelters reported an increase in demand for victim outreach services (i.e., support or services for victims outside their facilities). In addition, about half (49%) of shelters reported an increase in the number of crisis calls received, compared with before the pandemic. Many facilities expanded their services by supporting victims virtually outside the shelters through increasing the use of text or instant messaging (55% of facilities), email (55% of facilities) and other methods of communication such as video conferencing (68% of facilities).

The increase in the number of crisis calls did not always translate to an increase in shelter admissions compared with pre-pandemic times. Close to half (47%) of facilities indicated that the pandemic had greatly affected their capacity to accommodate individuals. Furthermore, just over 6 in 10 facilities (61%) reported reducing their number of beds or units to mitigate the impact of the pandemic. Thus, among the 6,775 funded beds in short-term facilities across Canada, 53% were occupied on the snapshot date of April 14, 2021, compared with an occupancy rate of 78% in 2017/2018, when data were last collected.

Chart 1  Chart 1: Percent of residential facilities for victims of abuse reporting a great extent of impact due to the COVID-19 pandemic, by type of challenge, 2020/2021
Percent of residential facilities for victims of abuse reporting a great extent of impact due to the COVID-19 pandemic, by type of challenge, 2020/2021

Shelters for victims of abuse across Canada had a total of 46,827 admissions in 2020/2021, compared with 68,106 in 2017/2018. This 31% drop in total admissions was driven by a decline in the number of women (-30% to 28,592) and accompanying children (-34% to 17,817) admitted. In contrast, over the same period, the number of men admitted to these facilities more than doubled, with 223 men admitted in 2020/2021 compared with 86 in 2017/2018. The increase in the number of men admitted may partly reflect an increase in the number of facilities that serve men.

The lower number of women and accompanying children admitted was likely attributable to pandemic-related measures.

In total, 4 in 10 shelter residents are children

On the snapshot date, 5,466 people were living in shelters for victims of abuse across Canada. Over half (54%) of the residents were women, while accompanying children accounted for 44% of residents. Men and adults of another gender accounted for the remaining 1% of residents. Overall, the vast majority (93%) of residents were staying in the facilities for reasons of abuse.

Of the 2,749 women residing in these facilities for reasons of abuse, the majority (84%) were escaping intimate partner violence. Most often, the intimate partner who had perpetrated the abuse was a common-law partner or spouse.

Among women residents who had parental responsibilities, the majority (76%) were admitted with at least one of their children. Overall, women at the shelters who had parental responsibilities were most often protecting their children from emotional or psychological abuse (78%) or exposure to violence (78%).

Chart 2  Chart 2: Relationship of abuser to women in residential facilities primarily for reasons of abuse, Canada, April 14, 2021
Relationship of abuser to women in residential facilities primarily for reasons of abuse, Canada, April 14, 2021

One in five women in shelters are Indigenous

Colonial practices including residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, and the resulting intergenerational trauma, ongoing socioeconomic inequities, systemic barriers and racism continue to place Indigenous people, particularly women and children, at increased risk of victimization.

On the snapshot date, 21% of women residents and 22% of accompanying children in shelters for victims of abuse were identified as First Nations, Métis or Inuit. Based on projected estimates for 2021, overall, Indigenous women represented 5% of all women in Canada, and 8% of all children were Indigenous. Relative to the number of Indigenous people in Canada, the proportions of Indigenous women and children in shelters for victims of abuse indicate an overrepresentation of Indigenous persons in these facilities.

About 3 in 10 women in shelters belong to a visible minority group

Residential facilities for victims of abuse indicated that on snapshot day, 29% of women residents belonged to a group designated as a visible minority. More than one in three (36%) accompanying children in the facilities were also identified as a visible minority. In comparison, it was estimated that in 2021, visible minorities represented 25% of women and 31% of children in Canada.

One in five women residents had stayed at the facility in the previous year

Among the women staying in shelters for reasons of abuse, 32% had previously been served by the same facility in the preceding year. About one in five women (21%) had resided in the same facility in the past year, and 11% had received services from the same facility on an outreach basis within the year.

On the snapshot day, 386 women were turned away, most (87%) from short-term facilities. About 7 out of 10 women (71%) were turned away because the shelter was considered full. Some women were turned away for other reasons such as the victim's profile or the type of abuse experienced being outside the facility's mandate, or because of a safety issue for the facility (for example, the individual was on a non-admit or caution list).

A total of 77 women left a shelter on snapshot day. The most commonly reported destination for women who left was to a home where the abuser was living (30%). Other destinations included a home where the abuser did not live (12%), a home with friends or relatives (12%), or another residential facility for victims of abuse (9%). For 24% of women who left, either they did not know where they were going upon departure or their destination was not reported to the shelters.

Other than pandemic-related issues, shelters responding to the survey were also asked about the top issues or challenges facing their residents. A large majority (81%) of facilities indicated that a lack of affordable long-term housing upon departure was among the top issues facing their clients. Housing-related problems were also noted in the last cycle of the survey as one of the main issues facing victims of abuse residing in shelters.

In both cycles of the survey, most facilities indicated that the average length of stay for residents in short-term facilities was within the facilities' mandated three months. However, residents staying for longer than this expected length of stay continued to be an issue for some facilities. Similar to results from the last cycle, nearly one in five (19%) short-term facilities reported an average length of stay that exceeded the mandated three months.

  Note to readers

The Survey of Residential Facilities for Victims of Abuse (SRFVA) is a census of Canadian residential facilities primarily mandated to provide residential services to victims of abuse.

With the exception of questions related to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on facilities, the information presented in this article refers to two distinct time periods. First, data pertaining to the number of annual admissions, average length of stay and financial information are based on a 12-month reference period (2020/2021) that preceded the SRFVA. Respondents were asked to select a 12-month reference period that most closely resembled the period their facility refers to in its annual reports. Second, the characteristics of facilities and the types of services offered, as well as the profile of those using residential facilities, are based on the snapshot date of April 14, 2021.

Short-term residential facilities include those with a general policy of providing accommodation for less than three months, and they typically provide individual beds to residents, as opposed to separate apartments or units.

Long-term residential facilities include those with a general policy of providing accommodation for three months or more, and they typically provide residential units (e.g., apartments or houses) to residents.

An admission refers to the official acceptance of a resident into the facility, with the allocation of a bed, child's bed, crib, bedroom or bedroom unit, or apartment. The total number of admissions is based on all admissions for the 12-month reference period and includes people who may have been admitted more than once. Each shelter visit is counted as a separate admission. For example, the same person being admitted to a facility three times in a year would count as three admissions.

In 2020/2021, the SRFVA was updated to collect resident information based on gender instead of sex. "Women" includes transgender adults identifying as female, and "men" includes transgender adults identifying as male.

Throughout this article and the accompanying Juristat article, analyses exclude facilities that did not provide a response to the specific question being analyzed. At the national level, this includes between 26% and 32% of facilities, and between 25% and 29% of adult women residents and accompanying children residents for analysis based on the number of residents. The percentage of excluded facilities or residents varies by question and by region. For questions where there was an unknown answer category, calculations include these unknown responses.

Information on Indigenous identity are based on the Aboriginal identity question from the SRFVA. The survey asked about the number of residents by their Aboriginal identity, where being of Aboriginal identity was defined as: First Nations, Métis and Inuit. First Nations includes Status and Non-Status Indians.

Visible minority was defined as persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour.

Population data are based on projected estimates for 2021 based on the 2016 Census of Population, produced by Statistics Canada's Centre for Demography.

The sum of percentages may not add up to 100% because of rounding.

Products

The article "Canadian residential facilities for victims of abuse, 2020/2021" is now available as part of the publication Juristat (Catalogue number85-002-X). The infographic "Residential facilities for victims of abuse in Canada, 2020/2021" (Catalogue number11-627-M) is also released today.

Additional data are available upon request.

Contact information

For more information, or to enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of this release, contact us (toll-free 1-800-263-1136; 514-283-8300; infostats@statcan.gc.ca) or Media Relations (statcan.mediahotline-ligneinfomedias.statcan@statcan.gc.ca).

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