Globe and Mail

Christmas spirits, holiday stress make December tough for women's shelters

LILA SARICK
The Globe and Mail
Thursday, December 30, 1999

The Christmas season is supposed to be a time of good cheer, but across the country it also brings a wave of domestic abuse, fuelled by alcohol, family tension and financial pressure.

Directors of women's shelters say the volume of crisis calls begins to climb in December, when worries about money to pay for gifts can explode into violence. Alcohol, so much a part of the holiday season, can make what is already a dangerous situation even more volatile.

Just as the demand for women's shelters hits a peak, they are often packed, unable to help.

In Alberta, crowding during the holidays means women may have to move as far as 500 kilometres away for an available space, said Arlene Chapman, provincial co-ordinator of the Alberta Council of Women's Shelters.

During December, provincial shelters receive about 30 per cent more crisis calls than any other time of the year, she said.

The stress takes a toll on shelter staff, she added, especially because the province does not pick up the bill when an urban shelter relocates a woman to a distant rural centre with available space.

Toronto's Assaulted Women's Helpline receives 15 to 20 per cent more calls after Christmas Day than on a normal day, said Beth Bennet, its program director.

"Women tend to be responsible for making sure the holidays go okay. It's a prime opportunity for a man to pick at the woman because the turkey's dry or because of something she said to his mother," Ms. Bennet said.

Women who were sexually abused as children may also have to confront their abuser around the holiday table.

For some women, the holidays trigger painful flashbacks. "We get a lot of calls from women and day to day they're fine. But Christmas comes and Uncle Fred is there who raped them when they were 10 and they're back to being 10 again," Ms. Bennet said.

Staff at the help line refer women to shelters, but as the shelters fill, women find they have fewer options and may decide not to leave their homes.

The phone line receives 25,000 calls a year and estimates that twice as many more get a busy signal because the service cannot afford to hire more trained counsellors.

At some shelters, demand has become so constant it obliterates any seasonal trends. Counsellors at Bryony House in Halifax said that a few years ago, women commonly tried to stay home until after the holidays ended. But now the centre is full all year round.

Redwood Shelter in Toronto was also full well before Christmas, but still the calls for help began to mount after Christmas Day. Counsellor Nahid Amin refers women elsewhere but says she and her colleagues feel terrible when they hear the details of a woman's situation and cannot offer her a place to stay.

Not every shelter is packed. Inexplicably, Lurana Shelter in Edmonton, which had been full since May, now finds itself about two-thirds empty, Sister Lucinda May Patterson, its director, said.

She wonders whether women are waiting to see what will happen after New Year's Eve.

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