Women without Canadian legal status are differentially impacted by COVID-19

By Sarah Wong

Canada’s economic response plan to COVID-19 has helped many individuals stay financially afloat these past few months. Despite this, Lisa Rupert, Director of Housing Services and Violence Prevention for YWCA, states that the pandemic has differentially impacted women without Canadian legal status. Lisa shared her insight and experiences with these women, highlighting how their challenges have been exacerbated throughout the pandemic. 

Women without Canadian legal status often work “under the table” jobs including restaurant work, cleaning, and childcare. Due to COVID-19, many have lost their jobs and are now unemployed. Since they have no previous proof of employment, these women unfortunately do not qualify for any of the COVID-19 response relief provided by the government. Furthermore, some of these women may be mothers who are single or fleeing abusive relationships. Although their children may be born Canadian, their own lack of status makes them ineligible for any child benefits or childcare subsidies. Combined, this puts significant financial stress on these women. Lisa shared that many of the calls the YWCA is currently receiving are from women without legal status who are struggling to afford housing and food for themselves and their children.

Advocating for and locating free medical services for women without Canadian legal status has been a longstanding challenge for Lisa and her team that precedes COVID-19. Lisa explained that previously available and free medical services, including the Pine Free Clinic, have since been shut down.  In response to the diminished resources, Lisa and her team try to find free services for these women elsewhere, such as free clinics in the Downtown Eastside. However, these clinics may already be overburdened with the population they currently serve and cannot take these women on as patients. As a result, these women may be faced with the difficult decision of paying for medical services or forgoing the healthcare they need but cannot afford. Now in the face of a pandemic, Lisa explained how this lack of accessible, affordable care is even more troublesome: “We’re all interconnected, you can’t say that during the pandemic those [women without legal status] should not have medical services without endangering everyone. Being forced underground means that if they do get [COVID-19], they are not going to get the care that they need and if they do happen to go to the hospital and get care, they’re going to owe a whole bunch of money they can’t possibly pay, so that is going to be a deterrent in their going. It is not the best practice during a pandemic – you want people to access support and care when they need it and be able to self-isolate.” 

Women without legal status are facing increased financial burden throughout this pandemic, preventing them from affording housing, food, childcare, and medical care. Lisa emphasized however that transition housing is still available for those who need help. She encourages women without legal status to call the YWCA, as they can collaborate with first stage housing to get them housing and food. In response to COVID-19, first stage transition homes are extending stays for individuals and putting social distancing measures into place to help ensure the health of those living in these shared spaces – including PPE and meals in rotation.

COVID-19 has revealed limitations in Canada’s social services for women without legal status, especially medical care. Although there are short term solutions that can mitigate the financial burden, namely transition housing, extending social and medical services to better help these women is a larger issue requiring further discussion. As Lisa put it, “This is a concerning situation and it is time that we look at this. This is the perfect time to be looking at it and finding a remedy.”

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