Local text and online chat service supports women experiencing violence during COVID-19

A photo of Dillon Black at their desk in Ottawa, ON.
Dillon Black, senior advisor on sexual and gender-based violence at OCTEVAW, shows the Unsafe at Home Ottawa website on their computer at their desk in Ottawa. The text/chat service supports women living with abuse or violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Dillon Black.

By Matthew Horwood

Women living with abuse or violence during the COVID-19 pandemic have a safe space to reach out for advice, emotional support and referrals to shelters or counsellors through the secure text/online chat service Unsafe at Home Ottawa.

The Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women (OCTEVAW) worked together with Eastern Ottawa Resource Centre, Ottawa Victim Services, Crime Prevention Ottawa and Interval House of Ottawa to create and maintain the texting line.

So far, as of July, Unsafe at Home Ottawa has been used by over 400 people, including 134 people in the two weeks after it launched in April.

According to Charlene Maurice, Interval House of Ottawa’s residential program manager, the COVID-19 lock downs “cut off survivors’ points of contact, such as schools, work and daycare” which restricted opportunities for them to reach out for help. 

“We also knew that the regular helplines were all phone lines, and that accessing them while in lock down with an abuser would be very challenging,” Maurice said. 

Dillon Black, a senior advisor on sexual and gender-based violence at OCTEVAW, said a reported decrease in calls at crisis lines in Ottawa around March confirmed that women in Ottawa were “caught between two different pandemics: one of gender-based violence and COVID-19.”

OCTEVAW quickly realized that, in order to make help to these women accessible, a text-based service with built-in anonymity and confidentiality would have to be established. They connected with a representative from the platform Resource Connect in British Columbia to utilize their software for the service.    

Black said the technology Unsafe at Home Ottawa utilizes has several built-in features that ensure privacy and anonymity for survivors. Online messages automatically expire so they can’t be found by abusers later on, and conversations are encrypted so only service workers have access to the data.

The service’s counsellors come from the various organizations collaborating on Unsafe at Home Ottawa. Black said the service started out with two counsellors working the local text line at a time, but more were soon added after a surge in demand. 

Most of the work the counsellors are doing involves providing mental health support and helping survivors find in-person counselling, Black said. They also assist survivors in creating safety plans, which involves finding temporary living spaces and devising strategies to stay safe while living with an abuser.

Black said when CBC wrote an article on Unsafe at Home Ottawa, people all across Canada — including some in different countries — began accessing it. While the service was created to assist people in Ottawa, Black said counsellors have helped people find services within their communities “wherever they are.” Black added that they see this nationwide interest as proof of the need for a text/online chat service for survivors of abuse.

Photo courtesy of Unsafe at Home Ottawa/OCTEVAW.

In the future, OCTEVAW would like to expand the service to include other languages besides English and French, and make it more accessible to the LGBTQ2+ community and new immigrants to Canada — two groups where there has been an increased demand. Immigrant Women’s Services Ottawa has recently begun working with OCTEVAW to connect more immigrant and refugee women to Unsafe at Home Ottawa.

Unsafe at Home was able to operate until mid-July with a grant from Crime Prevention Ottawa. Now, with funding from the Ontario government, the service will be running until at least spring 2021.

“We just really wanted a platform that met the unique needs of survivors, because we weren’t getting the calls we used to, and text messaging is one of the best ways for us to do that now,” Black said.

Unsafe at Home Ottawa is available through texting or online chat seven days a week, from 8:30 a.m. until midnight. Text (613) 704-5535 or go to Unsafeathomeottawa.ca to access the service or to learn more.

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