Supporting vulnerable women during the pandemic – an interview with Akilah Downey of The Redwood Shelter

The Redwood Shelter provides safe emergency lodging for women and their children who are fleeing abuse, and necessities like nutritious meals, toiletries, and diapers for babies. In addition to this, they offer onsite counselling for residents 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and crisis phone, chat, and text options that are also 24/7.


Their resident services counsellors work with women to assist them with housing and legal issues, and education and employment opportunities. In addition to this support, they offer a range of healing-focused programs throughout the week for residents including:

  • Positive discipline for everyday parenting
  • Art together

The Redwood has an abuse prevention team which goes out into the community to provide educational workshops about healthy relationships and life skills that can prevent becoming vulnerable to abusive situations.


CWI recently had the opportunity to connect with Akilah Downey, volunteer and communications coordinator for The Redwood.

CWI: First off, I would like to ask how you are doing and how the other staff at The Redwood are doing with everything that is going on?

AD: As a staff team we’re doing well. We’re doing the best that we can do during this very uncertain time. At The Redwood, we are staying physically distant, however we’re working really hard to make sure that we are not emotionally distancing because we still need to offer the much-needed supports to women and children. Staff who can work from home are being asked to continue to do so and staff who work directly with residents are working on a schedule that includes work from home days so that we can decrease bodies in the building throughout the week. Some counselling is being done over the phone and we’ve pared down the programming, so there are no volunteers in and out of the shelter at the moment.

Are you finding that a lot of those sorts of things (programming) have had to become more virtual now or are you still able to deliver a lot of them in person?

Yes, caseworkers are working with residents virtually when possible, but are still coming to the shelter for important matters that can’t be done remotely. Our resident services manager is continuing to look into virtual program opportunities for women and children to partake in during the week and over the summer. We’ve recently started to facilitate children’s art activities virtually with the support of our child and youth workers and seasoned volunteers.

And have you noticed any changes in utilization of your services since COVID-19 started?

We’ve been full the entire time and we’re always full because the demand for emergency shelters in Ontario for women and children fleeing abuse outweighs the province’s capacity.

We have been hearing on the new about ways in which COVID-19 has been affecting women. For example, those who live in violent situations [are] now being isolated with abusers. In general, at your centre, have you found this to be the case? Are there other issues that are affecting these women more so now with the pandemic situation?

Yes, there is huge concern for women who are currently living in abusive homes. As of today (as of May 21), 9 women have died due to domestic homicides since the beginning of April. And a woman dies every 6 days at the hands of her partner in Canada. Recently, The Redwood launched iDetermine, a website that offers a live chat and a text option for women and non-binary folks living in abusive homes who need help. Both are available 24 hours a day 7 days a week. iDetermine is staffed by trained counselors, and we’re so grateful to have partnered with 21 members of CWI. Originally, we were going to launch this resource in July, but when COVID-19 hit Canada, we realized the immediate need for folks who are further isolated in abusive homes. Prior to the pandemic, we would encourage folks to reach out through our helpline, but many are now trapped inside all the time with the person doing harm to them and they no longer have the privacy to pick up a phone and explain their situation.

What can members of the public do to help your organization and the women you support?

You know right now, there’s so many things that you can do right, but the number one thing that I say to people when they ask me that is, if you can’t donate, and that’s fine, what we really need right now is people to share these resources and share this information because you never know who is going through this. Quite honestly, a lot of people don’t even tell their families when this is going on for them. So just sharing the information with people you know, sharing it with networks, resources, staying informed, that’s huge. And for us that is what we’re focusing on right now: getting the word out about this new resource. Checking in on your loved ones. Education, education, that’s I think the number one priority right now. We don’t want it to get to a point where it’s femicide. We want people to feel that they can reach out for support and have support before it gets to that 911, life-or-death situation.

Is there anything else that you think would be important for me to let our readers know about other than the things we’ve mentioned so far?

I just want folks to know that they are not alone if they need support and we’re here for them.

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