'She was held in that tent for 15 hours screaming': Organizations respond to uptick in violence against women
VANCOUVER -- The first woman to arrive at an emergency hotel operated by Atira Women's Resource Society was covered in cigarette burns, and every one of her fingers was broken.
She'd been held for hours in a tent at an encampment at Oppenheimer Park, said Janice Abbott, the CEO of Atira.
"She was held captive in that tent for 15 hours screaming, because you can imagine what kind of noise you make when someone is breaking your fingers and burning you with cigarettes," Abbott told CTV News Vancouver.
"And nobody did anything. That's how normalized it is."
"It" is violence against women. While women who live in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside — where Oppenheimer Park is located — are particularly vulnerable, organizations across Canada have reported an alarming increase in the number of calls since measures to contain COVID-19 began.
A new study from trends data provider SEMrush says average searches for domestic abuse hotlines increased across Canada, with B.C. having the highest increase.
The company took the average number of searches for “domestic abuse/violence hotlines” in each province and compared the searches to their populations. B.C. had the highest search interest ratio, followed closely by Alberta, according to the company.
Searches for “domestic violence BC” rose by 128 per cent in March, compared to a 54 per cent increase in searches for “domestic violence Ontario," according to SEMrush.
Organizations that support women believe the increase has been spurred by the conditions of measures meant to restrict the spread of COVID-19, where people have been encouraged to stay at home as much as possible.
"The challenge now is that women are stuck at home with their abusers, so making phone calls, getting help, leaving is difficult," Abbott said.
"If you're staying home with your abuser, then when does he leave so that you can sneak out and get to a transition house?"
When it comes to Oppenheimer Park and two other tent cities in Victoria, the B.C. government and municipalities are now moving residents out and into hotels that are currently sitting vacant. That move will allow residents to follow physical distancing recommendations, according to the province.
Based on many incidents she's seen at Oppenheimer Park over the years, Abbott doesn't believe the encampment was a safe place. She said the women who have moved into the hotel Atira is now operating have been "thrilled" to get their own room and bathroom.
Lisa Rupert, director of housing services for the YWCA in Vancouver, said it's important to reassure women that first- and second-stage transition houses are still open.
Transition houses offer temporary, emergency housing for women and their children to flee abusive homes.
Operators have put physical distancing measure in place, and many are allowing extended stays because finding long-term housing is more difficult right now, Rupert said.
Battered Women Support Services has reported a 300 per cent increase in calls, and has created a new online awareness campaign.
The B.C. government says it has "worked to secure" 2,500 new housing units across the province in response to the pandemic, including 300 spaces for women, children and non-binary people who are leaving "violent or unstable situations."
When she spoke to CTV News on Saturday morning, Abbott had just called police to report an assault she witnessed on the bridge leading to CRAB Park. The man was arrested, while the woman was taken away in an ambulance.
"What I want people to understand is that violence against women is a thing," she said. "It happens everywhere. It's something we need to pay attention to."