You know what’s the hardest part of working in a domestic violence program?
It’s not the horrific stories of what human beings do to one another (although every time you think you’ve heard it all, there’s something new that shocks and demoralizes you); it’s not the middle-of- the-night call that wakes you up on your helpline shift (although it’s impossible to get back to sleep); it’s not even the fear you have for victims’ safety (although that’s ever-present). It’s not what most people think of when they say: “I could never do what you do” or “You’re such a saint for doing that work.”
The hardest part of this job is saying “No.”
Obviously, we want everyone to be saying NO to domestic violence, but saying NO to a victim of domestic violence?
No, I’m sorry, even though he’s beaten you up and you and your kids are living in your car, we have no room in our shelter because all our beds are occupied by other women and kids who are in the same awful situation that you are?
That’s a whole other story, and it’s heartbreaking.
When victims call our helpline, we present options and work on safety planning. There is no one-size-fits-all plan-- everyone’s situation is different. When the plan includes leaving, we explore sheltering/housing options: Are you in immediate danger? Can you safely stay with friends or family? Would a domestic violence shelter be the best option? If so, do we have room? If not, are there other domestic violence shelters with vacancies? If not, is there room in a local (or not-so-local) homeless shelter? (Note: While we provide services to male and female victims, our shelters are available only to women and their children).
Since 2008, helpline calls have risen 30%; our state funding, however, has remained flat, effectively equaling a funding cut. All around us, services have been decimated. Towns are cutting General Assistance; people in need are being dropped from MaineCare; TANF is being strictly time-limited; there are virtually no volunteer lawyers available to help with family matters; Section 8 housing vouchers are minimal; there is a dearth of affordable housing; and funding has been cut to child care providers. The safety net that is meant to protect us, our loved ones and our neighbors is being hacked away, leaving huge gaps. We’ve been getting many calls lately from people who would be better served by other service providers, but these providers are in crisis mode themselves and must turn people away.
And let’s talk about shelters: We have two, with 16 beds in Kennebec County and 11 in Somerset County. In 2011, 162 people called requesting shelter. We sheltered 83 of them and referred 79 others to other domestic violence shelters or homeless shelters or helped them figure out alternatives. Because of the lack of Section 8 vouchers and almost no affordable housing units in our area, stays in our shelters have gotten longer. Once, vouchers could be had in a matter of days or weeks. The waiting period has now stretched into months and victims remain in shelter. Are we going to put someone out on the street, where her only alternative is to return to the abuser? I think not. The end result is that these emergency beds are not available to other women in immediate danger.
This July, our Somerset shelter will become the site of a unique program--a domestic violence shelter that supports sobriety for victims who also struggle with substance abuse. Given Maine’s high rates of addictions and the number of women we’ve seen with this issue, this seem a natural extension of our work (and, had we not received federal funding for this particular program, we would have had to close that shelter). Our hopes are that this program will help women transition to a life free of violence and free of addictions, as well.
But this leaves us with only one “regular” emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence: That means 16 available beds, not 27.That means a lot more saying “No” to victims in need of shelter. It means a lot more women and kids sleeping in their cars (if they have cars) or a lot more victims who stay in potentially lethal situations at home because there seem to be no alternatives.
None of us who work with victims of domestic violence needs a middle-of-the-night helpline call to wake us up.
A lot of us aren’t sleeping a whole lot, anyway.