Making Space for Marginalized Women at Home

A woman wearing PPE and a denim jacket sits on a table next to several pots of growing plants.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many programs to adapt, it’s changed the way services are provided, and unfortunately forced others to close. Luckily, Willow’s Place’s doors have stayed open over the last year, but not without a cost.

Willow’s Place is Mission Services day time drop-in hub for women identifying individuals who are looking for a meal, laundry and shower facilitates, a safe space to rest, and a place to access resources and be connected to their community. The majority of the women who access Willow’s are homeless, but there’s also many housed women who come by the hub too.

Before the pandemic, roughly 25-30% of Willow’s daily clients were ‘housed’ women. These women have a place to stay but their housing is precarious. Often rent takes up 80-90% of their income, which means they have to meet their basic need for food and other necessitates some other way. The women can offset their costs by coming to Willow’s for meals, accessing laundry, and reducing their utilities simply by being in the space. Often they’d arrive for breakfast and stay the whole day.

A room with tables, chairs, and decorated with art, ribbons, and posters

Willow’s Place community room.

Once the pandemic hit, Willow’s had to limit capacity and prioritize the women who were homeless as they had nowhere to safely isolate. This meant they were unable to have the housed women in the space on a daily basis. They could still access meals-to-go and set up times to use the laundry facilities, but their daily connection to their community was gone.

“It hit the women hard when they realized they wouldn’t be able to come in. It was uncomfortable to meet them at the door and give them a meal but not allow them in,” said Karlene, Mission Services’ Pandemic Support Coordinator (pictured) at Willow’s.

Before the pandemic Willow’s could host up to 35 women in the space at a time, seeing over 50 different women on an average day. Now the hub can only offer 15-17 women entrance while maintaining social distancing.

This change was a struggle for the marginally housed women. “I’d been going three times a week, to not being able to go at all. I wasn’t seeing those faces anymore. I missed the women, workers and activities. The pandemic had a big impact on me and it was certainly a loss,” said one of our housed clients who prefers to remain anonymous.

Support for the housed women definitely decreased, as staff were unable to help them in person, and often not able to stay on the phone for long periods of time due to increased crises with the women at Willow’s. As the pandemic dragged on it became clear that a new solution was needed to further support the housed women.

Thanks to a grant from the Canadian Women’s Foundation, and additional funds from the Hamilton Community Foundation’s Women4Change Fund, Willow’s was able to hire a full-time Pandemic Support Coordinator (PSC) whose sole purpose is to support the housed women.

Now with the PSC role in place, the housed women have been given their own space at Mission’s 196 Wentworth Street North location. This allows room
for more women to safely distance, do crafts, have a coffee, or talk to someone.

“Everything is just like when they were here before, just in a different part of the building,” explains our PSC, Karlene. “They get to come in, and when they
come in they don’t just have to grab a meal and run.”

A woman wearing PPE and a denim jacket stands in front of a table with craft supplies.

“If you asked some of the women, they will say Willow’s, we’re their family,” said Karlene.

Karlene is available to talk on the phone, by text, or they can drop by anytime during the day. “They call here, I can give them the time they deserve to problem solve, listen, I can find what they need. Even if it’s as simple as looking something up on the computer, booking a vaccine or what not, I can assist them. A lot of things are digital during this pandemic and not everyone has the skills or tools necessary to do this.”

When our anonymous client heard she could return to the space she was thrilled. Suffering from depression, she was really feeling lost without that connection to her community. When she visited the newly extended space for housed women she felt at peace.

“I was given a voice on how the pandemic was impacting me and how we felt Willow’s could support us through this. I felt heard and respected,” she said.

Many of the housed women live alone, in unsafe situations and/or often with little to no family supports, so Willow’s Place gives them someone to turn to. For them, the space is about the company. Willow’s is a place of respite, a safe haven.

“If you asked some of the women, they will say Willow’s, we’re their family,” said Karlene. Karlene is working on getting the word out about the PSC position and how she can help. Since starting her role she has been able to connect with many of the housed women on a regular basis and offer socially-distanced activities with limited clients. She hopes to eventually have activities running every day, Monday to Friday.

“We knew we needed this position, but I don’t think we realized just how impactful it would be for the women,” said Karlene. “The expressions of
gratitude so far have been over-whelming.”

Willow’s Place staff have been tirelessly working to support the women accessing the hub over the last year. On average Willow’s sees 45 new women every month which highlights the importance of this support system, especially during these challenging times. Staff support 25-30 different homeless women who come through their doors every day.

To support the housed, precariously housed and homeless women who access Willow’s every day, visit our donation page.

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