Chez Doris women's shelter has seen 'astounding' number of clients in pandemic, says director

Among the many things the pandemic has suddenly brought to light is how many Montrealers are homeless, and specifically women.

“Homelessness among women is quite hidden,” says Marina Boulos-Winton, the director of the Chez Doris day shelter.

Women without a fixed address, and often women suffering violence in a relationship, aren’t generally on the street, she explains.

“They tend to stay with their abuser, maybe. They’ll stay at a 24-hour restaurant. But when these restaurants don’t let you sit in their establishment anymore, they really have nowhere to go.”

Their numbers have become clearer over the last few months, says Boulos-Winton.

“Since the 17th of March, we’ve seen an astounding number of homeless women,” she said.

The shelter saw 346 different women between that date and the end of July, a shocking number compared to normal. The shelter only has space for 40 women at once.

A quarter of that group “are brand-new to Chez Doris. We’ve never seen them before,” she said.

The shelter expanded its services with the help of federal grant money distributed through Centraide, she said. It was able to extend its opening hours, staying open until 8 p.m. every day.

It also set up a new service helping women look for apartments with a dedicated housing case worker, and began to offer a small budget to help them get basic furniture and necessities if they found a place.

Things have eased up a bit, Boulos-Winton said. At first, Chez Doris was only accepting homeless women because of the demand—it wanted to reserve services for those who needed them most—but more recently it’s been able to welcome back some who are not homeless as well.

Today, Chez Doris hosted some live music for its clients, trying to alleviate some of the stress they’ve been feeling.

“They really need a good dose of joy every day, because they really don’t have much joy in their lives right now,” said Boulos-Winton.

She says it’s very important for women facing violence or abuse at home to call a crisis line like the SOS violence conjugale, 1-800-363-9010, and to start the process of finding an appropriate shelter, including one that accepts kids, if needed.

But it’s equally important to plan such a move very carefully, something professionals can help with, she said.

“Really carefully plan your exit strategy, because there is the possiblity of more violence directed towards you by your abuser immediately once you leave your home,” she said.

Studies have shown that women who leave a violent relationship are in the most danger immediately after they leave or announce an intention to leave.

Watch the video above to see Boulos-Winton's full interview.

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