As more Americans are being asked to shelter in place and practice social distancing to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, one group of people will be particularly impacted—survivors of domestic violence and abuse, for whom home is dangerous.
“We know that isolation compounds violence. It increases people’s risk, and it compounds the type of violence that people experience,” Emilee Whitehurst, CEO and president of the Houston Area Women’s Center, told Jezebel. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s CEO Katie Ray-Jones, the hotline has already seen an increase in clients who report that partners are using the threat of covid-19 to, as she put it, “further isolate, increase fear, and manipulate.”
The pandemic is posing a wide array of challenges to domestic violence shelters and hotlines, which already operate on the razor’s edge. Many staff are now working remotely; organizations have been forced to make the difficult choice to close their walk-in service centers; and shelters are reducing capacity in order to keep residents as safe as possible, cutting down the number of available beds during a time when they predict need will likely increase.
Jezebel spoke with advocates in states around the country to hear from them on how they are responding in this moment, why they believe that they will see an increased need for shelter and other forms of support for survivors, and what we can do to help both survivors and the organizations that work with them.
They all underscored that their services are still available, and they’re doing everything they can to maintain critical lifelines for people.
Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline
While we’re not currently seeing an increase in volume coming into the organization, we expect that might happen as people become isolated with abusive partners and as their ability to seek help becomes severely limited without potential repercussions.
The last two days are the first two days we’ve seen a little bit of a drop in our volume coming into the organization, but the number of people who are mentioning covid-19 and their concerns about how it’s being used in their relationship is increasing.
We’ve started to hear from survivors whose abusive partners are leveraging covid-19 to further isolate, increase fear, and manipulate.
We’ve heard things like: My partner is threatening to kick me out of the house so I’ll get exposed and get sick; my partner’s threatening that if I get sick, they’re not going to pay for my health care or my medical treatment; my partner’s not letting me go see friends and family, and that’s my safety net, and I feel like they’re trying to isolate me.
We heard from someone this afternoon who said my partner is refusing to let me go to work and said it was because of potential exposure to covid-19. The survivor was saying, I feel like he’s using this just to further isolate me. In that instance, he started loading a gun while he was saying it, and she said he had never done that before. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.
Many of the strategies that we work with survivors, and they keep in their back pocket when they live in abusive situations, are feeling really limited. We’ve started to hear and see that from people who are like, I’m thinking about calling the shelter but I don’t know if it’s safe to go to the shelter because of potential exposure. Some people are saying I just left the shelter and I’m going to return home to my abusive partner because I’m fearful of being exposed in the shelter.
We had a distressing situation where someone reached out and their partner had strangled them the day before. And the advocate said they could hear it in the voice that they had clearly been strangled but the person said they were afraid of going to the hospital, I don’t want to get exposed.
We’re working through a lot of different scenarios and trying to plan the best we can with people giving their unique situations, with the networks and resources we may or may not have, to help people be the safest they can in a really unsafe situation.
If you think someone you know is in an abusive relationship, reach out to the hotline. What we anticipate is going to happen is that friends and family are going to be the helpers. They’re going to be the one resource that people can safely reach out to, one for emotional support, and to potentially strategize.
Giving to your local program, or making a gift to the National Domestic Violence Hotline is the best way we can keep organizations such as ours at maximum capacity to the best of our ability during this time. Survivors are going to need us more than ever.
Ariana Chavez, Outreach and Education Specialist and Elizabeth Sahagún, the Director of Supportive Services, of YWCA Glendale
Ariana: It’s already hard to find a shelter in Los Angeles county. They’re usually really, really full. What we’re anticipating is either two things, not enough phone calls because people do not know we’re operational, or we’re going to get a lot of phone calls. It’s an either or [situation].
And then, because of being sheltered at home, and also the things the governor is telling us, it’s either they’re afraid to leave because of being exposed to the virus or they believe there isn’t enough room in the shelters.
Our hotline is still open. People often tell their health care provider or their teacher [about their abusive situation], but those places are closed right now or busy. We are always available, and there’s always a live person behind the phone.
Elizabeth: Right now, what we’re noticing is we’re not getting a lot of calls. They’re very limited. During one shift over the weekend, we had three calls, and that’s really rare.
Because of the quarantine, people are home with their children and may find themselves in a situation where their abusers are also working from home, so they’re not able to move forward with any plans on leaving and leaving their situation. Eventually, as soon as this is over, I definitely think there will be an increase in calls.
The lack of beds is always a concern because domestic violence funding has been very limited. In the past few years, a lot of shelters have closed. There’s always a shortage of beds for domestic violence survivors, especially when it comes to not only emergency but transitional shelters. Those are very, very limited.
People’s finances are always a big concern of ours. Now they’re not only worried about fleeing or removing their children, they’re also worried about, “How am I going to financially support my children and myself?”
I just came from the shelter. We have two participants who are actively looking for work, but due to this whole crisis, their interviews got canceled, and no one is hiring. A lot of things have been put on hold.
Ariana: We have a lot of low-income families and undocumented survivors, and they’re losing their income as well. It’s hard for them to have food on the table or make ends meet and support their children. I know a few participants clean houses, they’re losing jobs.
Elizabeth: We’re worried people might return to their abusers. There’s always a possibility of that, because a lot of times, they find themselves in desperate situations. They do it for their kids, mainly. And they’ll just deal with the abuse.
Ariana: One ex-participant on Monday came into the center looking for food, and we gave her a Wal-Mart gift card. Her immediate reaction was, I can’t go to that Wal-Mart, that’s where my abuser works. In L.A. where we live, there’s only one Wal-Mart in that area. She’s in transitional housing, and she said she would talk to one of the other moms to work something out. But she’s worried about her safety.
Elizabeth: Our facility did close, but everyone is working remotely. And we’re providing mobile advocacy, which is a first for us. Our food pantry is still open, and we definitely need a lot of food. Diapers, formula, anything and everything related to the basic needs of a family. Toiletries, anything. The more stocked up we are, the more we can give out to them.
Ariana: Toilet paper, hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, all the cleaning supplies that are out because everyone is hoarding them.
Emilee Whitehurst, President and CEO of the Houston Area Women’s Center
We have had to cancel our groups. In any given week, we typically offer 40 groups a week on our two campuses that we have and 17 different sites and locations throughout the city. The groups have stopped, but the good news is, we have figured out a way to be proactively in touch with current clients. And our hotline is still available. People can still access us that way.
What people cannot do that they used to be able to do is just walk on to our non-residential campus. I will tell you, that’s really hard, that people won’t be able to come in like they used to be able to do.
The residential campus is operating. We have changed our staffing ratios to increase the ratio of adults to children so we can make sure that the children are maintaining social distancing. The Houston Independent School District school is closed, so we are having to provide activities and staffing for all the kids who used to be in school. We’ve also made sure that we have one room designated in the event of a quarantine. So that remains empty. On Friday of last week, we had six people we admitted, they had high need. And at that point, we made the decision, that any other folks who need safety, we would use hotel [vouchers]. And that would allow us to spread people out in the shelter and also keep that one room. It was a hard decision.
We work with a really committed set of agencies and we collaborate effectively to try and make sure that people can access shelter when they’re in danger, although we have to turn away so many people. We were doing a data analysis this morning and in the last two days, one in five calls that we received through our hotline were requests for shelter. Harris County has the highest turn away rate in the state. It’s alarming. When we look at our data, we are regularly turning away half of the people, and I don’t mean just people who want a place to stay. I mean people who have legitimate safety concerns. It’s an alarming state. So when you increase the pressure on those already very limited beds by needing, with very good cause, to maintain social distancing and not max out the population in any given shelter, which is what we are doing, it’s really challenging.
We know that isolation compounds violence. It increases people’s risk, and it compounds the type of violence that people experience. It enables an abuser to exercise increased levels of coercive control. Psychological, emotional, financial, and physical, we just know that’s true. And when people are put in situations where they’re now not missed because they’re not at work or at school, they’re not in class and nobody is watching or worried that they’re not there, it is very worrisome.
Two groups of people need to feel supported, our staff and survivors, and we want to give people real ways to do that. The challenge is that all the ways that in the past have worked involved people coming together, bringing us things. You hate to just say, give money. But I can tell you, every little bit of financial support can help. Our staff is at risk themselves, and they’re putting themselves at additional risk. We are going to do everything we can to maintain services, and support our staff.
Kelly Starr, Managing Director for Public Affairs of the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Home isn’t a safe place for everyone. We hope to create a world where everyone can be safe in their own home. The reality is that it’s not for a lot of people. When you think about domestic violence, at the heart of what is going on in an abusive relationship is that one person is trying to gain and maintain control of another person. Most commonly, people think of physical abuse, but that also includes limiting someone’s options to leave the relationship, and that’s tied to money and resources.
One of the things we’re really worried about is that right now, there are so many economic impacts. And when someone has limited access to money, to housing, to affordable ways to get childcare, all of those things give people fewer options to live safe and independently of an abuser. This is a marathon, not a sprint here. Survivors are going to be feeling the economic impact of this, particularly in communities that are already marginalized. It’s going to be challenging and have an impact on survivors across our country for a long time.
Abuse thrives in silence and isolation and when people aren’t connected to hearing other voices, it can give an abuser a lot more control. One of the things I’ve been thinking about, I’m fortunate enough to be able to work from home. And my partner can hear all of my phone conversations I’m having right now. And that’s fine for me. It’s a time to think about all of the ways that people can reach out and get support even without saying something out loud. We want people to know that resources like the National Domestic Violence Hotline, you can also chat online 24/7, confidentially.
One of the huge challenges [our member organizations] are facing is keeping folks safe not just from external forces but also the virus. We’re trying to get them connected with local public health offices for supplies to keep shelters and housing areas clean. Staffing is a huge issue, because once the schools closed, a lot of the advocates working to staff these programs now have childcare and economic challenges of their own to deal with. There’s an increased need. To be hit doubly has been really challenging for programs.
This situation isn’t causing somebody to be an abuser but it can escalate an abusive situation if you’re in one, because the ability to track and monitor is so intensified with the social distancing model. We just know more situations are going to escalate. Anything we can do to equip the folks who people naturally turn to all the time and especially so when they’re more isolated right now is so is important. We have a friends and family guide, which is tips and resources and tools for how to ask questions, how to listen to somebody, how to be supportive, how to think with them about how to stay as safe as possible. And that, anybody, can get. We want to equip those folks as sort of the first responders. Informing yourself if you’re the one person that someone feels comfortable turning to, you can have a really huge impact. That can be lifesaving.
If you or a loved one need assistance call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 (TTY 1−800−787−3224), use the chat function on their website, or text LOVEIS to 22522.