As the rains return this weekend, at least six local women will be able to take shelter with the knowledge that they can stay warm and dry all day and night.
That’s because on Wednesday evening, Cowichan Women Against Violence Society’s women’s shelter opened its doors for the first time since March, in an all-new setup that offers women experiencing homelessness not only warmth and safety, but also around-the-clock access and private sleep cubicles. Previously, the shelter was only open at night, on a first-come, first-served basis.
The new shelter set-up replaces the temporary tent site that CWAV had set up in the middle of the Cowichan Community Centre’s overflow parking lot, where at the end there were six women living on site.
One of the women is Kathy (not her real name), a 52-year-old woman who grew up in Lake Cowichan and had recently moved into one of the tents. She appreciated having a tent to stay in, but says that it had been cold at night and “like a sauna” during the day.
On Wednesday afternoon, as the tent site was being dismantled, Kathy went through her belongings to decide what to keep and what to toss into a dumpster. At the shelter, she and the other clients will be able to keep one large Rubbermaid bin of items in the shelter’s storage area, and another bin of personal items in their sleeping space.
“It’s wonderful being treated like a human being,” Kathy says. “Running water is wonderful, having showers, going to the bathroom. People take all that for granted.”
“Plus, no looky-loos,” Kathy adds, referring to the high visibility of the tenting site, in the middle of a parking lot.
So, how did it go at the tenting site for women’s shelter clients?
The women’s emergency night shelter opened in December 2018 in a converted concession stand owned by the Cowichan Valley School District. Fifteen beds were situated in one large room for women needing a safe space to spend the night. Because this wasn’t a good design for physical distancing, when COVID-19 hit shelter staff made the tough choice to reduce capacity to seven beds, and then to close the facility entirely in late March.
On April 27, after some hiccups caused by high winds, CWAV opened the tenting site, initially with room for eight tents and later expanded to accommodate 10 women. The parking lot was not the preferred location, but the school district nixed a request by the Cowichan Women Against Violence Society to create a tent site in the field outside the shelter building.
“It felt like such a shame moving our most vulnerable people into a tent in the middle of a parking lot,” says Adria Borghesan, manager of the women’s shelter. “It felt vulnerable and exposed.”
And yet, she says that the shelter’s clients grew to love the tenting site over the five months it was in existence. Unlike at the shelter, the tenting site was accessible day and night and the women assigned a tent could keep their spot for as long as they needed it and followed the rules.
Able to come and go as they pleased, and zip the door to their tent when they wanted privacy, the clients took ownership of the site, Borghesan says. For example, they set up cleaning schedules for the common areas of the tent site.
“Autonomy is one of the most basic human rights,” Borghesan explains. “We learned from the tent site that autonomy is everything. It provided dignity, provided freedom. And [unwanted] behaviours came way down.”
She says that she hopes that the sense of responsibility and ownership cultivated at the tent site will carry that over to the shelter.
Three major changes to the women’s shelter
The reopening of the women’s shelter almost didn’t happen. Because the CVRD needs the parking lot back, the women’s shelter had to find somewhere else for their clients, Borghesan says. Up until two weeks ago, it looked as if the tent site was going to move to another outdoor site several blocks away. Having a tent site situated so far from the shelter building — where staff cook meals and clients come to shower — would have been very challenging, she says.
Fortunately, CWAV executive director Debbie Berg was able, at the last minute, to find funds to reopen the women’s shelter, with three major changes.
The first is that the shelter is now open around the clock. Previously, clients had to leave after breakfast and couldn’t return until after 5 p.m. This was a problem even before the pandemic, and would have been a much greater problem if the shelter had to reopen as a night shelter, Berg says.
“There’s no washrooms and common areas for them to be during the day, that would allow all of us to feel safe and the women to feel safe as well,” Berg says.
Borghesan adds that a lot of the women are active at night and like to sleep during the day. “It’s going to be just so good for our clients,” she says.
The second change is that, just as it was in the tent site, women get a place to sleep that is theirs. This means they can come and go without the fear of losing their spot.
“Unfortunately, there tends to be stigma even more so now that COVID has come,” Berg says. “And so we want the women to feel that they have a space that’s their own and they can feel safe. And that’s hugely important.”
The third change, which has transformed the look of the shelter, is that the eight sleep spaces are set off from one another by plywood partitions. These private cubicles were designed and built by Peter Wilson of DIV1 Projects, who volunteered his services.
He completed the work on Tuesday, and the next morning the six women were given the good news that it was moving day.
Settling into the shelter
Moving day was stressful for the clients, Borghesan says. She says it was “heartbreaking” to see the women go through yet another upheaval in their lives, after having settled so well into the tent site.
“From the outside, it looks like this disheveled mess, but inside the tents it was beautiful, with stuffed animals, handmade drawings, plants,” Borghesan says. “You could see they really did their best to make their little spaces nice.”
On Thursday, Borghesan reported that the women were already feeling at home at the shelter. She says that they were particularly excited to be able to watch movies again on the shelter’s television.
Still a need for drop-in beds
One downside to the new setup at the shelter is that there will be no drop-ins, Berg says. “When we moved into the tents, we had to shift from being a shelter, in the sense that you could drop by and it was first come, first served for the beds. We couldn’t do that anymore, because the cleaning protocol was too much.”
CWAV staff expect the remaining two available beds at the women’s shelter to be filled very soon. After that, if any of the eight clients give up their space at the women’s shelter, staff will do a very strict cleaning protocol before someone new comes in.
Some of the shelter’s former clients have found spaces in temporary housing at the Ramada Duncan hotel and other tenting sites, as well as drop-in beds at the Warmland House shelter, according to CWAV staff.
But Berg says that the lack of drop-in beds is an issue for the overall community. “We still haven’t fully come up with what that needs to look like because what we’re trying to do is just give everybody, as much as possible, a place that’s their own.”