Working in a Transition House during the Pandemic:
Where the Norm is Crisis
Sheri Taylor began her first day as the new Executive Director of Leeside Society on April 6th, 2020, as the COVID pandemic forced workplaces to close and people were told to stay at home. She asked her outgoing predecessor, Marina Martens, on zoom: “So should I come in then?” Marina laughed: “It’s a shelter. We’re open, no matter what. Of course you should come in”.
Women’s organizations across Canada remained open and staffed during the pandemic crisis, including 24/7 shelters that provide communal residence, food and basic necessities to women and children experiencing violence. In Nova Scotia our Transition Houses and their staff were deemed essential. Despite their pandemic anxieties, they showed up for work, ensuring their doors were open, and the premises were safe and compliant with Public Health orders. “This is a family place”, explained Liz MacDonald, Leeside staff. “We might have three or four families here normally, often with children. They need to go to court, they’re involved with police, they’re hungry, and need proper food, they have medical issues, and that’s before the pandemic started.”
There is no normal in a Transition House. Ensuring compliance with the provincial regulations is an important part of the work. The pandemic added a complicated layer of Public Health orders on keeping communal places safe. Anxieties about health, transportation, court dates being cancelled, violent (ex) partners being released, and financial challenges were manifold. Supporting clients dealing with these systems, while adapting work practices and offering programming via videoconferencing, meant that life at the shelter during the pandemic reached new heights of complexity. “We try to keep things
feeling as normal as possible for our residents, so they feel safe and comfortable. But then, we have to tell them, you can’t bake or cook (meals were portioned and pre-packaged deliveries since the pandemic started) and constantly sanitizing high touch areas, with children about, is challenging. Outreach support services continued, offered via phone and text, and video conferencing work quite well. Our childcare support holds zoom calls with children and their schools. We all say that we can’t wait till we meet in person again.”
Sheri is grateful to have started work when she did. “I learned so much, in such a short time, developing close working relationships within community and over zoom with my colleagues across the province, ordinarily that might have taken years. Being in frequent contact provided the opportunity to support each other in our work, given the challenges we were all facing.” She sees the benefits of living and working in rural places, like Port Hawkesbury. “We are very fortunate to work with so many diverse partners, including the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia on how to support newcomer women facing abuse. We have the Indigenous and Wellness Courts in Cape Breton, established by Judge Laurie Half-Penny MacQuarrie, the first of its kind in Canada. People are very connected in rural Nova Scotia- you have to be. You have to know all the resources and be able to quickly connect with them.”
We further welcome Emily Stewart, who also started her new position as Executive Director of Third Place, Truro, during this period. Her appointment followed the retirement of Sandra Falle after more than 30 years of dedicated service. We wish Sheri and Emily the best of luck and look forward to working alongside them and all staff for our common cause of ending violence against women.