Survivors of domestic abuse and the people who serve them were already facing hardship before the pandemic, but over the past year their situations have become even more strained.

“Last year, for every person we took in, we had to turn away at least three women,” said Daniela Gismondi of Domestic Abuse Services – Our Lady of Good Counsel Society (DAS), based in Surrey.

DAS runs a second-stage transition home for women who have fled abusive relationships, a helpline, and other programs.

When lockdowns were introduced earlier this year, Canadian helplines reported “dramatic” increases in the number of calls and the more urgent and severe situations of their callers. DAS did see a slight increase in helpline calls, said Gismondi.

DAS also saw an increased strain on the women living in their second-stage transition home, Eva’s House. Four women (with their children) can stay in the home for six to 12 months at a time as they figure out next steps: jobs, housing, childcare, counselling. But the lockdown meant many day cares, schools, adult education programs, and employment supports were closed or difficult to access; businesses were not hiring; and counselling was often only possible online.

These roadblocks are making their pursuit of healing and independence even more challenging.

“It is really difficult in normal circumstances,” said operations manager Agnes Drewniak. “They already have a lot on their plates and are already in a situation with a lot of anxiety and uncertainty. This just makes things worse for them.”

In normal times, Drewniak would frequently visit Eva’s House and sit down with one woman at a time for a shared meal and a long heart-to-heart. Now, she finds herself wearing a mask and standing in the doorway.

“Talking to someone with a mask over your face is not ideal,” especially when the conversation is full of emotion, she said. Receiving counselling over a video conferencing site is also not ideal if you have a disability or if English is not your first language.

A room in Eva’s House transition home for women. The home is under increased pressure during the pandemic and operating at maximum capacity. 

While survivors of domestic abuse adjust to the circumstances, so does DAS. The organization lost its primary source of income for four months when it was forced to shut down its thrift store. Financial donations have also been slim this year, as fewer people are donating and organizations that host charity fundraisers in support of their work have had to cancel these events.

“We have been very cautious since the spring,” said Gismondi, adding she believed “we would make it through the summer, but then at that point it was up in the air if things would continue.”

Thanks to a grant from the archdiocese’s Crisis Response Fund, she said, DAS is back in the black.

That fund was created by the Archdiocese of Vancouver’s Development Office, which realized this year’s annual Project Advance campaign couldn’t go on as usual and needed to provide a response to the pandemic. So far, it has granted funds to ten groups, including services for people facing addiction, dementia, developmental disabilities, domestic abuse, homelessness, hunger, and mental health issues.

“The thing with COVID is there is an influx need for shelters, but there is also a hesitation for survivors of domestic abuse to move out of their homes for fear of COVID,” Gismondi said.

Currently, Eva’s House is at maximum capacity, with all four independent suites filled. Gismondi would love to open up more space.

“We’re quite confident that when we have space available, we will have a lot of applications.”

DAS recently began pushing forward on their New Housing Fund in an effort to double their second-stage housing capacity, from four families to eight. Gismondi hopes people will be inspired to give this Christmas season, even though it has been a tough year.

For privacy reasons she can’t say where the current home is or where they hope the second one will be, but she said they are looking at the Metro Vancouver area. “That’s where there is a great need.”

Drewniak said she has seen incredible resilience in the women who turn to DAS.

“They’ve been through a lot and that’s not going to break them. They push forward. They do whatever needs to be done, no matter what.”