Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 57: Pandemic Conversations: Advocating for Women During COVID-19 — with Janice Abbott

Speakers: Fiorella Pinillos, Paige Smith, Janice Abott


Fiorella Pinillos  0:06  
Hola yantis Number Filipina year CSS Below the Radar and knowledge democracy podcast. Welcome to the sixth episode of our conversation series. Below the Radar is created by SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement and is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. In this episode, we are joined by Janice Abbott, the CEO of Atira Women's Resource Society. Paige Smith sits down with Janice to discuss how the pandemic has affected the work of Atira in combating violence against women. 


Paige Smith  0:44  
Thank you for agreeing to this interview. We were really excited to have you join us.

Janice Abbott  0:50 
Yeah, I'm happy to be included.

Paige Smith  0:51
Yay. Okay, I was thinking we could just start with you introducing yourself.

Janice Abbott  0:56 
Sure. So, my name is Janice Abbott. I'm the CEO of the Atira Group of Women Serving Agency. I've been with Atira for almost 28 years, 28 years in September. I've always been in this position, we were just a much smaller organization in 1992. So I think I had a different, well I know I had a different title.

Paige Smith  1:18 
So maybe you could tell us a little bit more about the story of Atira and what you folks do and what your mandate is.

Janice Abbott  1:24
Sure. So we are at our essence, at our core, we're a women's anti violence organization, we were established in 1982 became a registered charity in 1983. Or not a registered charity sorry, incorporated in 1983. Opened our first transition house in 1987, in South Surrey. And that's where I started working almost 28 years ago, and we are now a large kind of multi-service agency. Although we remain a women's anti violence organization, but we manifest our mandate primarily through housing, and then do a bunch of other stuff. We have three, four or five day trauma informed daycares, we have counseling programs for women impacted by violence, legal advocacy, a wholly on for profit subsidiary that manages licensed property management companies. So we're quite large.

Paige Smith  2:20 
I saw that you guys do a lot of different work. It's, it's really amazing. It feels like a kind of, you look at it, like from a holistic kind of standpoint. 

Janice Abbott  2:32 
Yes, I hope so.

Paige Smith  2:33 
So maybe you could talk about, with all these different programs, you folks are running, how they've had to shift and change because of the pandemic.

Janice Abbott  2:41 
Yeah, so we were, we were pretty prepared. We got ahead of the pandemic earlier than most and made some really quick decisions that we enacted quickly. So starting in mid March, we, for example, implemented guest restrictions in our supportive housing buildings, particularly those buildings that have shared bathrooms and narrow hallways, where physical distancing wasn't going to be possible. We did things like that. I think we got 20 Marine toilets in case we had folks in buildings with shared bathrooms who were either symptomatic or tested positive so that they were able to self isolate in their rooms and not have the shared bathrooms. We extended our food program so that people could count on getting fed at home and not have to go out into the community for meals. We launched our program out of our, we have a small sort of office, drop in space I guess, in the Downtown Eastside. And we turned that into sort of a hub to distribute food and cleaning supplies and other life necessities to women who were self isolating at home. We set up a call in line with peers and staff. So we put some of our staff so women can call 24/7 if they need something. We set up a tent kitty corner from Oppenheimer Park to expand our, we have a women only safe injection site that we had to reduce the number of people inside so we set up an outdoor tent so that we wouldn't have to reduce services. So those are a  couple of things that I can kind of think of. We put, I think was in the first by the end of March, we had put It's not the prettiest but very functional hand washing stations at the entrance of all of our buildings, we MacGyvered them together with buckets, started distributing soap on demand to anybody who wanted or needed it, set up some laundry services, we brought in a contractor to do extra cleaning and sanitization, especially in those buildings where people share bathrooms. So, yeah, we've done a lot of stuff. Started sending out a bi weekly tenant newsletter to provide information about COVID, information and updates, because particularly in the buildings that we're operating people because of their marginalization often don't have access to information. So yeah, we've been doing bi weekly COVID related newsletters for everything, information and how to prevent the spread, how to use safely under this current environment, to where to get additional information. So yeah.

Paige Smith  5:22 
We all look back with 2020. But looking back for you, why do you think your organization was so quick to respond?

Janice Abbott  5:30 
Without sounding whatever, it's because I just made the decision to do it. I decided in March, when it kind of hit, I had a look at the information and decided to do what I thought we needed to do to keep our staff and tenants healthy and beg forgiveness with our funders.

Paige Smith  5:52 
Yeah. Well, it seems like it was the right choice.

Janice Abbott  5:56 
Yeah, yeah, I don't, I don't regret anything, any decision we made. We because we're a large enough organization that we had a bit of cash flow. So I didn't, you know, I didn't need the money in advance, we could cashflow some of this stuff. Obviously, we would have been in trouble at some point if our funders hadn't come along. And they did come along that’s for sure, obviously, or funders also made some really good decisions with respect to all of the, all nonprofits I guess. But if that hadn't happened, we would've found ourselves in a bit of trouble. 

Paige Smith  6:33 
Right. You mentioned I think the place you were talking about that's kitty corner to Oppenheimer Park. That's, that's the sister square, right? Yes, maybe you could talk a little bit more about that, and what that place is and why it was created.

Janice Abbott  6:48
Yeah, so it was created for a couple of different reasons. As I mentioned earlier, one was definitely to expand space so women could use safely. But also, it was a response to the violence that women were sharing with us that was happening inside the park. And, and as COVID progressed, and more people were on the streets, like Carnegie Center shut down and the Evelyne Saller Centre closed, etc. At the beginning, the violence, I mean the violence in the park, we've been hearing about it for a while. So part of it was just the right time, irrespective of COVID and part of that was COVID related, I guess. But we needed to have a safe place, that was adjacent to the park, we also, we have a building there that has women only modular housing projects on that site. And we had a group of very aggressive young men who were taking over the yard. And so women were having to run a gauntlet to get home. So part of it was to create women only space on the entire site so that those men would move along and get off property and let women access their homes in peace really, to create a safe place for women who needed to sleep in the park, which as you know, since then the camp also expanded, shared using space for women.

Paige Smith  8:09 
Right. And since you folks are so close, and work so directly, do you know much about how the new movement to try and provide housing for people in Oppenheimer Park in the hotels, the vacant hotels, do you know what the ramifications have been of that so far?

Janice Abbott  8:29 
So we operate. So a couple of other things we did, we early on, we were asked to offer or to open and operate a lease to a town through Vancouver coastal health that would provide space for folks who are homeless and tested positive for COVID. So we opened that in early I think we opened that by early April, trained all the staff were cool The Vancouver Coastal Health, we only ever had, it was a 65 room building and we only ever had 10 guests, there really weren't any outbreaks in the homeless population. And of those 10 guests, I think only three were actually COVID positive at the end. So we did that early on and then we were also asked to operate two of the hotels that were leased to house folks out of Oppenheimer Park. So we opened those at the beginning of, sort of late April, early May, early May, I guess, not late April, early May. Right now, the buildings are in our experience pretty quiet. But we expect and we've been talking with Vancouver Coastal Health, BC Housing, the city. We expect that as people get kind of settled into the neighborhoods that it will begin to have an impact on the surrounding neighborhoods. And so we're kind of preparing for what that looks like and what resources are needed. 

Paige Smith  9:46 
Right. This is a bit more of a broad question, but maybe you could speak to what you folks do to create safe spaces for women that are escaping the violence specifically during the pandemic, like what do you do to make that space safe?

Janice Abbott  10:02
So I should, I should probably also share I forgot about this, we also opened a temporary temporary transition house. During COVID, which opened at the beginning of April, this is a partnership with Easter Seals House. So Easter Seals House, which you may know provides accommodation for people who are coming from out of the province and have kids who need surgery, located close to BC Women's and Children's Hospital. So when the surgeries were cancelled as part of the provincial government's response to COVID, and they no longer needed that, that resource for people to stay in. We took over that space and started offering housing to women fleeing violence. And that lease goes until the end of July. So it's 49 rooms and we, I think we've had close to 40 families in there for the time, and now we're working to find some housing for the first of August.

Paige Smith  11:03 
Wow, that's great. So then is that been the priority is, is expanding these resources as possible because in these reports that have been circulating how there's been this increasing and uptick in violence, because of likely people having to isolate themselves? Like is that been one of the key focuses for you guys is just expanding the amount of beds the amount of transition homes the amount of resources available?

Janice Abbott  11:32 
Yeah, definitely. And we're also doing a lot more outreach. So like I said earlier, delivering, through delivering cleaning supplies, we've got a 24 hour call in line. So women can call it anytime. The challenge when you're self isolating with your abuser is you probably can't make calls or leave easily, because you're home, everybody's home all the time. So we're trying to recognize that and support women who may not be able to reach out because it's not safe for them to actually call anybody.

Paige Smith  12:02 
Right. This is a tougher question but if someone does need help right now, what is the type of steps they should take? If they you know, what's that first step that you would, you would I mean, obviously, it's their, their agency and their choice, but like, what, if someone was looking for suggestions, what would you suggest the first step be? 

Janice Abbott  12:21 
To leave a violent relationship or get out? 

Paige Smith  12:23 
Yeah, exactly. That's a hard question. But is there something that would be useful for anyone to hear?

Janice Abbott  12:32 
I think every, every situation is different. Women often I mean, in my experience, women kind of leave at two times. One time, it's not necessarily because of an act of physical violence, but because they've been planning and working towards leaving. So it's not necessarily that they've been assaulted immediately prior, just that they've been in an abusive relationship for, you know, however long and this has been part of their plan is to get out. And then the other time, obviously, is that this is in the immediate aftermath of an assault. So, you know, like, if each woman's situation is unique, if they can, if they can get to a phone and call somebody or indicate to somebody whether that, you know, transition house or a family member, or a supportive friend. So that's kind of a first step, someone who can help you plan to leave if it's dangerous to actually physically leave your space. But I guess the main thing is, you know, if it's hard or or almost impossible to get out, to reach out to someone who can support you, and whoever, whoever that is, whoever it is that works for you.

Paige Smith  13:46 
Right? And in relation to that. How can people like other folks that aren't experiencing the violence. How can other folks help to try and prevent any violence or support people that are going through stuff like this? Like, because of the pandemic, should we be reaching out to the women in our lives more, should we be checking in with each other more?

Janice Abbott  14:11 
I think most of us know, not all of us, but most of us know, when our friends or family members are in a relationship that's not healthy for them. And I think it's incumbent upon us all to pay attention and check in and make sure that that person knows that you're there for them, that you will help them if they call you, that you wont judge them, or you know, pressure them to do something they're not ready or interested in doing but that you're an ear, and if they need or ask for help that they can count on you, but that you won't, you won't pressure them to do anything they're not ready to do. And it's important for those of us who are concerned that we have someone we care about who's in an abusive relationship. It's important that we educate ourselves. If I have a good friend or family member that I know is in a, or my sister, whatever is in a relationship, I'm concerned about I should know who to call if she calls me. I should be, I should be prepared, I should know, I should have a list of transition houses and support services. So that if she tells me she wants help, I don't have to do the research. I've already got it.

Paige Smith  15:26
Yeah. And you can just pass it on or whatever.

Janice Abbott  15:30  
You really have to listen and support her in the way that she needs or wants to be supported in that moment.

Paige Smith  15:37
Right. That makes sense. Okay, and then kind of the last sort of question I wanted to ask you is, I saw that you folks had written with a number of other non for profits in the area. You've written an open letter to minister Simpson regarding the income assistance for the vulnerable communities, and specifically, like the people relying on CPPD, sex workers, street vendors and binners. I was just wondering if there had been any movement from the province in regards to these issues? If you folks had heard anything about that?

Janice Abbott  16:14 
No, we have no. We haven't seen any, so this is specifically for people who aren't eligible for things like the Canadian Emergency Response Benefits. People typically for federal benefits, you need to have some, you need to file a tax return basically. So no, we've not. I mean, there's been some, you know, minor increases in monthly benefits from the provincial government. But nothing, nothing really more than that.


Outro  16:56  
Thank you again to Janice Abbott for joining us on our Below the Radar Conversation Series. Stay in the loop with Below the Radar by following us on Twitter and Facebook. Be sure to subscribe wherever you find your podcast, including Apple podcasts, SoundCloud, Overcast and Player FM and please leave us a review. As always, thank you to the team that puts this podcast together including myself Fiorella Pinillos, Rachel Wong, Paige Smith, Jackie O'bunga and Kathy Feng. David Steele is a composer of our theme music, and thank you for listening. Tune in next time for a brand new episode of Below the Radar. Adios


Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
June 25, 2020

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