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Community Update: Watching out for people who are unsafe at home


The social challenges people face on a regular basis have not gone away because of COVID-19. As days pass, we are increasingly worried about the most vulnerable people, whose day-to-day struggles are increasingly difficult and who are becoming more at-risk throughout this crisis. 

For many weeks now, United Way East Ontario has been bringing together a table of public health authorities, municipalities, frontline social service agencies, corporate partners, and many others. In the same way we worked together with our communities to support Syrian refugees, to recover after the 2018 tornadoes, and to rebuild after the 2019 floods, we are again focused on understanding the issues that the most vulnerable are facing and working together to develop local solutions.

This week, we were joined by Dr. Vera Etches, Medical Officer of Health for Ottawa Public Health; Marie-France Lalonde, Member of Parliament for Orleans; Jeremy Roberts, Member of Provincial Parliament for Ottawa West-Nepean and Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister for Children, Community & Social Services; and Ottawa City Councillor for Innes Ward and Deputy Mayor Laura Dudas.

As Marie-France Lalonde said, “the work you are doing now is a small reflection of the work you’ve been doing all along.” 

United Way East Ontario’s role during a crisis is to mobilize the community to address the issues faced by vulnerable people, and we are pleased to see public sector leaders from all levels of government join us in this important work.

By Dennise Taylor-Gilhen
Vice President, Community Impact,
United Way East Ontario

Unsafe in isolation

While physical distancing is one of the most effective tools we have to flatten the curve of COVID-19 in our communities, isolating at home can be both a fearful and even dangerous experience for women and children who live with violence in the home. 

Home is not a safe place for everyone. For some women and children, COVID-19 has meant that there is no respite from the threat of abuse, and fewer opportunities to connect with friends, family, or services that can provide the help they need. 

This week, our table heard from organizations in Ottawa and across East Ontario that work every day to prevent and address gender-based violence. What we heard is that, because of COVID-19, women who need help are finding it difficult to reach out, to leave those unsafe homes, and to find a sense of security for their families. 

Cut off from daily social interactions like school drop-offs and errands, many women don’t have anyone to alert about the danger they may be in. 

For women and children already living in the shelter system after fleeing violence, the nature of these facilities makes it difficult to self-isolate. Tight quarters, and common kitchen and social areas have required shelters to implement scheduling in shared spaces and find ways of offering remote access to counselling and kids’ education.  

Not every woman’s experience is the same. For some, being at risk of violence during COVID-19 is made more challenging by their identity and personal circumstances:

  • Indigenous women fleeing violence continue to experience racism when sheltering in hotels, perpetuating the sense of danger and trauma
  • Single mothers have high anxiety about the safety and care of their children, should they contract COVID-19
  • Women in rural communities experience high levels of stigma from experiencing domestic violence, and community silence makes it even more difficult for women to seek help
  • Shelters don’t have adequate space to have sick people self-isolate, so an outbreak could devastate their staff, volunteers and clients
  • Women living in rural communities without access to public transportation, and who don’t have access to a car and money to fill the gas tank, are even more trapped in their dangerous circumstances

Rallying together

While our weekly table meetings serve as an opportunity to identify challenges, work together on solutions, and take action on different problems, we know a lot of that work is also ongoing behind the scenes. This meeting also facilitates strong connections between organizations that can share resources, information and learnings from this crisis.

Recently, the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women, Crime Prevention Ottawa, Interval House of Ottawa and the Eastern Ottawa Resource Centre launched “Unsafe at Home Ottawa” – a text and chat platform to reach women who may be living through increased violence and abuse at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the launch of this platform, they have helped several women escape violent homes, and they are supporting many others with information, emotional support and referrals as they cope under difficult circumstances.  

The group behind this service is looking to expand its language offerings beyond English and French, and they are consulting with different groups to make sure they can reach the most at-risk women in ways that are accessible to them. This includes using familiar social media platforms, accounting for spotty internet access, and other barriers. 

We and our partners are also working to make sure vulnerable women have access to technology so their physical isolation does not leave them disconnected from support. Earlier this month, we made a joint investment with Ottawa Community Foundation into Interval House Ottawa and four shelters serving women fleeing violence, so women and their children can stay connected.

With so many engaged partners who are laser-focused on a common goal, we are able to respond quickly to the needs as we identify them. Right now, in the thick of this crisis, we need to ensure women who are not safe in their homes have the tools to reach out and get the help they need. 

Things are financially difficult for so many people right now. But, when we work together, we can use our resources creatively and effectively to address the most pressing needs. 

This is our mission.

In early March, in partnership with Ottawa Public Health and dozens of organizations across the community sector, United Way launched an initiative to help support the most vulnerable in response to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) affecting our region. This collaboration has enabled local problem solving, prioritization of needs, and collaboration. To learn more about supporting the initiative, or if you require community service assistance, please visit




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