Ketsia Houde-Mclennan, acting executive director of the Women’s Transition Home in Whitehorse, poses for a photo outside Betty’s Place in Whitehorse on Dec. 8. Women stuck at home with their abusers is the hidden pandemic, said Houde-Mclennan. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Ketsia Houde-Mclennan, acting executive director of the Women’s Transition Home in Whitehorse, poses for a photo outside Betty’s Place in Whitehorse on Dec. 8. Women stuck at home with their abusers is the hidden pandemic, said Houde-Mclennan. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Increased violence in Yukon homes called the ‘hidden pandemic’

Two women’s shelters are recording a surge of clientele in recent months

Two Yukon women’s shelters have seen an uptick in reported violence during the pandemic, according to shelter directors.

“The number of calls increased, the complexity of cases increased, which I think is showing the hidden pandemic — which is women stuck with their abuser at home,” said Ketsia Houde-Mclennan, acting executive director of the Women’s Transition Home in Whitehorse.

“It’s more violence, and it’s more intense violence.”

The downtown women’s shelter, Kaushee’s Place, reached 115 per cent capacity in October with about 17 adults and eight children housed there, and three people in hotel rooms. That number is higher than usual, Houde-Mclennan said.

With rising COVID-19 cases in the Yukon, the shelter is now challenged to avoid crowding. Its usual capacity of 19 beds was cut to 10 beds, increasing demand for hotel rooms.

“If we keep at those levels we’re going to run out of money; we don’t have enough space to put women right now because we stopped doubling rooms,” she said.

With demand growing and capacity shrinking, the shelter is looking forward to a probable influx of federal funds to continue paying for hotel rooms. Managing overflow that way is an imperfect solution born out of necessity, Houde-Mclennan explained.

“It’s not as safe in a hotel — a hotel is a bed, and a roof over your head, which is not the safety you sometimes require, which is locked doors and 24-hour support.”

Jen Gibbs, executive director of the Dawson Women’s Shelter, said they are at half-capacity because of COVID-19. Since the pandemic began, she’s seen a 50 per cent increase in calls and more women dropping in for advice and safety planning.

“We did see an increase with all the additional stressors the pandemic is creating for families and couples,” Gibbs said.

“If a partner already had a propensity to be violent, we definitely saw that intensify.”

Both shelter directors said the pandemic seems to have exacerbated assault trends.

“Some of the incidences of violence have definitely been in more extreme forms, we are seeing more tech-based harassment … there’s definitely some alarming trends,” Gibbs said.

Last week, Statistics Canada released updated gender-based violence data from 2018. It says the Yukon had the highest rates of assault in the North, pre-pandemic. Fifty per cent of women reported experiencing sexual assault, while 58 per cent of men reported physical assault. The three-territory average was 39 per cent and 52 per cent, respectively.

Aja Mason, Director of the Yukon Status of Women Council, said those numbers aren’t surprising, and gender-based violence can be traced to the territory’s roots.

“Our entire colonial history is based on mass immigration of settlers and gold miners, and the ethos or normalization of rape culture has been intact and really healthy for over 100 years — since the dawn of the gold rush,” Mason said.

Present-day Yukon still has a high rate of mining activity and steady flow of transient workers who don’t have a stake in the community, Mason said.

“There’s this frontier mentality that is prevalent up here, and the relative recency of colonization itself is fresh,” she said.

Mason is advocating for additional support services in the territory.

“The ratio of resources to violence is really low,” Mason said.

“The infrastructure is calibrated to the number of people, not the level of violence.”

Last spring, the Yukon government launched a Sexualized Assault Response Team (SART), but that service hasn’t fully integrated into the community. Mason suggested the pandemic may have thrown an additional wrench into its maturation.

SART’s mandate is to provide a 24-hour phone line, support workers, medical assistance at the Whitehorse General Hospital, help navigating the court system and assistance reporting to RCMP. Mason noted that many non-governmental front-line supports operate in silos, so it will take some time to integrate the new service.

Both shelter directors said the Yukon needs a new shelter to keep up with demand.

Houde-Mclennan said that funding for additional shelters is coming available through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation — but there will only be funding for two new shelters across the three territories.

“We’re hoping they’re going to be reviewing that decision; there should be a new shelter in each territory,” Houde-Mclennan said.

Houde-Mclennan is also advocating for more long-term solutions, like social housing. Right now, women staying at the shelter seeking long-term housing are finding there’s “nowhere to go,” she explained.

Gibbs added to the call for an additional shelter. She said an Indigenous-led, low-barrier option would better serve women who use substances or have mental health issues.

“I think there’s a real gap in service,” Gibbs said.

Women experiencing violence can call the 24-hour crisis lines at the Women’s Transition Home (867-668-5733) or the Dawson Women’s Shelter (867-993-5086).

Contact Gabrielle Plonka at gabrielle.plonka@yukon-news.com

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