Paige Flink was facing one of the most difficult calls of her career. An emergency domestic violence shelter she ran in Dallas, the largest in the city, was going on three days without power. The women and children inside were bundled up with blankets and winter coats, but the dark and the cold were getting to them.
Flink, the executive director of the Family Place, was on her computer at home, where she had electricity. Sitting at her kitchen table, she weighed whether to evacuate the shelter. It was a logistical nightmare: Hotels were full, and she needed a space large enough to house dozens of women and children. Safety was her prime concern. Homeless shelters had relocated their clients to a convention center, but that wasn’t an option for her clients, many of whom were in hiding from abusive partners. She kept hoping the power would come back on, but it didn’t.
As she was on the phone with shelter staff, water began pouring out of the light fixtures there, soaking those inside. The pipes were bursting; it was time to go. She told staff to direct clients to strip their beds and take everything they owned outside.
Desperate for aid, Flink turned to Twitter.
“We need help at @family_place! We have NO power in our emergency shelter,” she tweeted, tagging Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and other elected officials. “We have 123 women and children who are FREEZING! And, our sprinkler system is about to burst!”
The winter storm that battered Texas earlier this month left millions without electricity or running water ― including many people at domestic violence shelters, often the last resort of victims in need of safety and support. At least eight Texas shelters experienced severe damage and had to evacuate their clients. A dozen others sustained damage such as flooding, but were unable to move clients because there was simply nowhere to go.
Gloria Aguilera Terry, CEO of the Texas Council on Family Violence, said that every domestic violence agency in the state was affected in some way. A few only had to contend with a water boil mandate, but many were at least moderately damaged.
“It is inconceivable that Texans already vulnerable due to violence in their homes, who sought refuge in shelters across Texas, experienced an additional assault to their basic human needs of warmth, water and safety,” Terry said.
In Dallas, Flink’s plea for help did not go unnoticed.
“Immediately I got a response from a pastor at our church not far from the shelter, who said ‘They can come here, we have power right now,’” she said.
The city of Dallas sent over five buses to begin moving everyone. It was just in time. Minutes after Flink sent her tweet, she said, the pipes at the Family Place burst, and ceilings began to collapse.
“You could hear clients screaming ‘The ceiling just caved in!’” she said.
Women inside frantically gathered their items, including important legal documents such as protective orders and immigration papers.
Within three hours of sending the tweet, Flink said, they had moved 123 people into the church. The Salvation Army delivered cots, and a local restaurant brought pizza and pasta. But their stay at the church would be temporary. On Thursday, the church’s pipes burst, leaving them with no water. The basement, where the kitchen was located, began to flood.
The second time they evacuated, they headed to a hotel with open occupancy. As of Feb. 24, that’s still where they are. It was a strange thing, Flink said, relocating their entire domestic violence shelter to a hotel, but it’s working. They are maintaining security using a card key system for the wings of the hotel they’re in, and staff is on site around the clock to provide support to clients.
Every time another room in the hotel opens up, they take it, Flink said. Domestic violence doesn’t just stop during a natural disaster. They need extra rooms so new clients can arrive. Victims can call a hotline to get the address of the confidential location.
Flink, who has worked at the Family Place in some capacity for 30 years, recently announced her plans to retire. In all her years of service, she said, she’s handled many emergencies. There was the time someone broke into the shelter, or the time one of their buildings got black mold. This was worse, she said.
“This is probably the biggest crisis I’ve dealt with ― the magnitude and the speed with which it had to happen,” she said. “Water, flooding water, it’s so scary. I knew how they were suffering.”
The Dallas shelter ― which is 60,000 square feet and has 110 beds for victims, plus 25 transition housing apartments, a day care and a one-room school ― sustained serious damage from the flooding. It will likely take at least three months to fix, Flink said, meaning they will be operating out of a hotel for the foreseeable future. The organization is asking for donations to ensure services are uninterrupted.
“As long as the hotel will take us, we’ll stay there,” she said. “But my hope is that we’re all good neighbors for each other.”
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.