People working with victims of abuse say there has been a steep increase in violence against women during the COVID-19 lockdowns, and refer to it as the "shadow pandemic."

"Isolation is almost like a gift for an abuser,” Nina Gorka, a director with YWCA Toronto, said. “When you remove accessibility to resources, to supports, to transportation, to childcare, all of those pieces become a very insular experience for people who are experiencing violence in the home.”

Gorka told CTV News Toronto that it is more difficult to reach out for help when someone is being monitored by their abuser. Additionally, some women are reluctant to enter shelters due to COVID-19 fears.

“People are being forced to make really impossible decisions about whether or not they potentially expose themselves, or their family, or their children to a pandemic, or the risk of getting sick,” she said.

According to Women's Shelters Canada, which released results of a survey of 266 Canadian shelters, 16 per cent of women admitted to shelters reported experiencing "much more severe" violence. Thirty-six per cent spoke of dealing with "somewhat more severe" abuse.

"There has actually been increased rates of violence in the home, and increased frequency of violence in the home, and actually, in many cases, increased severity of violence in the home,” Gorka said.

Meanwhile, the pandemic is limiting shelters' ability to provide services to clients. In fact, 28 per cent of violence against women shelters reported their ability to provide services was impacted "to a great extent."

Thirty-nine per cent of these organizations reported they were impacted to a "moderate extent." Seventy-one per cent of the shelters that Women's Shelters Canada surveyed had to reduce capacity to meet public health regulations.

“We live in a society of plenty, and I think we all can do more to help those who are less fortunate," Michael Cheung, an owner-operator of a Shoppers Drug Mart at Yonge and St. Clair, said.

Cheung owns one of 39 Toronto stores that raised almost $60,000 for the YWCA during a fall fundraising campaign. Overall, across Canada, Shoppers Drug Mart raised $2.4 million for 300 shelters across Canada.

“I didn’t realize that, you know, it’s happening to such a great degree. But it’s good that attention is being brought to it because I think we need to have public awareness about it,” he said.

The YWCA says that support is very appreciated, because it enables staff to buy necessities, like warm clothing, for shelter residents.

Gorka said the needs of Toronto's shelters have not been met yet. Shelters across the nation are reporting staffing challenges and an inability to accept certain volunteers.

Meanwhile, fundraising ability has dropped significantly. In fact, 38 per cent of shelters surveyed reported they had raised "significantly less" than the previous year.

"We know that finances are scarce, and yet we also know and recognize that everyone deserves dignity in their workplace or in their home, and that’s what we’re trying to provide," Gorka said.