Domestic abuse shelters in Alberta are increasingly being overwhelmed by requests for help, and have had to turn away thousands due to a lack of space or resources.
Data released by the Alberta Council of Women's Shelters (AWCS) shows shelters throughout the province answered over 59,000 calls for help last year, the highest demand recorded in a decade. Between 2022 and 2023, there was a 19 per cent increase in the number of people sheltered.
This rise in incidences of domestic violence stems in many ways from the impacts of the pandemic, ACWS Executive Director Jan Reimer said.
"Coming out of the pandemic, we anticipated an increase and indeed we are seeing an increase. People felt more reluctant to seek help during a pandemic. We see more violence happening as a result of the pandemic. We knew it was coming," Reimer said.
Previous studies suggest an increase in demand for domestic violence support following pandemics and natural disaster, "and Alberta has seen both."
"We've had fires. We've had floods. These have not been easy times for many Albertans."
Rural women at higher risk
Though demand for shelter space has surged everywhere, rural support services are coping with disproportionately high volumes and unique challenges.
Women in rural, remote, and northern communities experience rates of domestic violence 75 per cent higher than those in cities, and the violence is often more severe. About 18 per cent of Albertans live in rural areas, but more than 40 per cent of those who stayed in a shelter last year did so in small towns and rural areas.
Part of the reason rural women are at higher risk of domestic violence is because there are just fewer options for them in their communities, Reimer said. And transportation costs are often prohibitive if someone chooses to leave.
"Where do you go when you're in a rural or remote community? And who can take you and how do you get there? All of these are really, really challenging," she said.
"Domestic violence is often more widespread than we anticipate. And so many women are dealing with it, but there are not many places to go and if they do leave, they're leaving also a way of life if you're going to the city. Because it's a different way of life when you come to the city than it is living in a rural Alberta community."
ACWS is one of four organizations worldwide that can certify workers with the use of the Danger Assessment Tool developed at John Hopkins University, which assesses a survivors risk of being killed by a current or former partner. Nearly three-quarters of survivors from small towns and rural areas were in severe or extreme danger of being killed, ACWS data shows.
Demand not matched by funding
Although demand has increased, in many cases funding and resources for domestic violence shelters have not. For every person who was sheltered last year, more than two had to be turned away due to a lack of space. Rural shelters were unable to take in 35 per cent more people this year than last, including children who arrive with survivors.
To deal with growing domestic violence in Alberta, the sector needs to be stabilized, Reimer said. Funding has been stagnant for nearly a decade, and the low wages common for shelter workers spur high turnover rates which in turn impact service provision.
"It has been referred to by some of my colleagues as a 'wife job' – you really can't afford to work in a shelter unless you have a partner who has benefits and is able to supplement the income," she said.
The province has committed an additional $10 million over four years for women’s shelters, as well as $10 million over four years for sexual assault services, said Ashli Barrett, press secretary to the Minister of Children and Family Services.
"Children and Family Services is currently considering how to best invest this additional funding and is working with our partners, including the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters, to inform these decisions," Barrett said.
Even with funding shortfalls, shelters have been incredibly innovative in dealing with challenges in the province. Reimer said.
"If anyone knows how to stretch a dollar, it's those who work at women's shelters. And I think sometimes the innovation of our sector is also not acknowledged as it needs to be."