Domestic violence shelters essential during COVID-19 lockdowns

October 8, 2021
Photo: Ulrike Mai / Pixabay

COVID-19 lockdowns have created even more obstacles and difficulties for women and children seeking safety from family and domestic violence.

Social isolation, a lack of services and financial stress have triggered the rise in gendered violence which, in turn, has put added strain on shelters, domestic violence service providers and help lines.

Reports in late September said that some women have resorted to disclosing domestic and family violence while attending COVID-19 vaccinations. Advocacy groups say COVID-19 vaccine clinics should be equipped with domestic violence support staff and information about how to get help.

Yvette Vignando, chief executive of the South West Sydney Legal Centre said online and telephone domestic violence services provided during lockdowns did not provide the necessary privacy or safety for women who lived with an abusive partner and were fearful of being overheard. Many women can only disclose in a confidential setting such as a GP’s room.

The rise in domestic and family abuse during lockdowns has also led to rising levels of homelessness. Domestic Violence New South Wales (DVNSW) is calling for local councils and the state government to convert unused student accommodation and hotels into social housing for women and children seeking refuge from violent partners.

DVNSW released a report in August identifying the effects of COVID-19 lockdowns on domestic violence services in the Greater Sydney area. The report said “73% of services faced a significant increase in demand” and an overall “increased complexity of the situations” of clients. The report also highlighted higher waiting lists for services.

CEO of DVNSW Delia Donovan said: “Funding granted during the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak was welcomed but has now ceased for many services and, as a result, they’ve faced the loss of staff and resources. The lack of long-term funding makes the increase in demand difficult, especially in regional and rural areas.”

Due to the unreliability of state and federal government funding, many organisations, such as the Parramatta Women’s Shelter, rely heavily on local grassroots community support.

Elizabeth Scully, co-chair of the Parramatta Women’s Shelter, spoke to Green Left about how they have coped in lockdown. She said because the shelter had “close relationships with community groups” it has had help with funding, food and household items.

The Parramatta Women’s Shelter provides a culturally safe space for women and children of the diverse communities in Sydney’s West, including First Nations women and children who make up 25% of the community. It also provides access to translation services and employs a staff member who is fluent in Hindi and Gujarati.

“Demand for the shelter is very high, and that even before the current lockdown the shelter was full,” Scully said. Workers at the shelter respond to clients’ complex needs via providing counselling, support and most importantly housing.

Scully said, typically, families are in crisis accommodation at the shelter for 3–4 months and are then moved to “transitional housing”. “COVID-19 restrictions have meant that it is taking families a little longer than normal to be placed,” she said, however “because staff have developed strong relationships with the local community over the last 18 months, community members have assisted in these placements”.

Due to school closures, the shelter has had to cater for online schooling as two–thirds of the shelter’s clients have school-aged children.

“Community support, including the donations of computer equipment as well as a Parramatta Council COVID-19 grant has helped the shelter purchase the required equipment.” Scully said women can access the shelter via a referral through the government hot-line or through social media community groups. She said the public health orders do not apply to anyone trying to escape violence and abuse.

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