By Mike Baker
The YWCA Women’s Centre of Haliburton County has a rather unique goal – to put itself out of business.
However, according to Darlene Smith-Harrison, transition support and women’s centre manager, the organization is further away from that objective than it has, perhaps, ever been.
Since 1986, the YWCA has served as a beacon of hope for women and children across the Highlands, offering a wide-range of supports and programs to victims of abuse and violence. Operating under the YWCA Peterborough Haliburton umbrella, the women’s centre specializes in three areas – transition support, clinical therapy and family law information and support.
While there has always been a need for service in Haliburton County, that demand has intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Through our transition support program we have seen an increase of 20 per cent in the number of women requiring our services since March of last year,” Smith-Harrison said. “That is a huge increase. Certainly higher than anything we’ve seen before year over year.”
The YWCA offers free, confidential support to women who are concerned about the health of their relationship or are planning to leave an abusive situation. Supports are provided by phone or in-person, with flexible meeting arrangements in safe locations throughout Haliburton County. Staff also provide safety assessments, court support for criminal and family court matters, transportation to and from appointments, emergency transportation, housing information and details to help individuals better understand the effects of violence and trauma, both on women and children.
While there is considerable concern over the increase in local numbers over the past 15 months, Smith-Harrison said they actually fall under the national average over the same time period.
“Women’s organizations across Canada have seen a 30 per cent increase in the need for safety and supports since the pandemic began,” Smith-Harrison said. “It’s an alarming increase, especially so considering the severity of cases we respond to are increasing also…
“COVID-19 has increased the barriers for women when attempting to escape violent situations, especially in rural areas. Reaching out to supports has become more challenging when these women are trapped alongside the controlling or abusive person day and night due to lockdown, so the considerable increase is that much more concerning,” she added.
The increased demand has put a strain on the local women’s shelter, who only gets a percentage of their costs covered through the government. The YWCA has to fundraise for approximately 35 per cent of their budget each and every year.
With that in mind the organization has launched a new month-long fundraiser throughout June titled ‘Will You Help Make Sure They have a Safe Way Out?’ They hope that, with the help of the community, they will be able to raise $10,000 to cover costs associating with running their transition support programs.
Money will also be used to maintain the Haliburton Emergency Rural Safespace [HERS]. HERS provides a unique safe space within Haliburton County so that women and their children can move away from the abusive situation in their home, without leaving their support systems, jobs, schools, families and friends behind.
The organization has two independent living units in the county.
“HERS is a truly unique program in the sense that it gives women time to readjust and consider and contemplate their next steps without fleeing from their community,” Smith-Harrison said. “It’s a temporary solution rather than a permanent fix, but it’s all about providing a safe space to those who desperately need it.”
Statistics from the YWCA’s 2019/20 fiscal year show that the occupancy rate of the two units was 94.6 per cent, with the average length of stay sitting at 68.5 days.
Smith-Harrison said there have been many success stories, with women often transitioning in
to permanent living situations away from their abusive partners.
Even after a successful transition, Smith-Harrison encourages women to make use of the YWCA’s programming as they adapt to a new life.
“Most women do still use our services, and we do encourage that. It’s a whole other new transition going out on their own. It may be the first time ever that they’ve lived alone, so need supports that way, maybe the family court system is moving slowly and they need help there – there’s still so much help and assistance we can provide individuals once they’ve moved on from HERS,” Smith-Harrison said.
When discussing the types of abuse she sees, Smith-Harrison said it’s all encompassing.
“Abuse can be verbal, physical, mental, emotional, sexual, financial or spiritual in nature. Abuse can come in many forms and many behaviours – whether it be forced manipulation, controlling tendencies, physical attacks…” she said.
If you are concerned that someone you know may be a victim of domestic abuse, Smith-Harrison said to always call 911 if you suspect someone may be in immediate danger. Aside from that, if trying to help, she advises to “gently and privately” let the individual know you’re concerned and ask how you can help.
“Help her get in touch with agencies such as ours that can help. Be very patient. It’s important that we support women where they’re at in their process. Don’t be pushy. Let her know you’re there for her if and when she needs it,” Smith-Harrison noted.
For more information on the YWCA Women’s Centre of Haliburton County and its programs, visit ywcapeterborough.org/programs-services/ywca-womens-centre-of-haliburton-county.