After almost two months living in a domestic violence shelter in rural West Virginia, a 49-year-old woman, who asked to remain anonymous, had finally scraped together enough cash to move into her own place.
The woman, who said that she ended up at the Eastern Panhandle Empowerment Center after fleeing an abusive boyfriend in another state, had saved $600 ― enough for the first month’s rent in a mobile home. In December, the staff at the shelter offered to cover her security deposit, using a special fund for emergency client expenses.
For the woman, a new start was within reach. She paid the application fee and was approved for the rental. And then, the government shutdown happened.
The shelter could no longer help her with housing costs. She lost the mobile home.
“I feel hurt, hurt, hurt,” she said. “I’m already starting out with absolutely nothing. I don’t know what is going to happen now.”
The government shutdown ― which on Saturday became the longest in U.S. history ― has thrown the fate of domestic violence shelters across the country in limbo.
Many, like the Eastern Panhandle Empowerment Center, rely heavily on federal funds to stay afloat. With the government closed for business, they can’t access the federal payments they so desperately need. The same funds they planned to use to help the woman with housing.
Not knowing when the shutdown will end, shelters around the country are preparing for the worst. Many are curtailing services, cutting all but the most essential costs and planning for layoffs.
“The things that we know they need to make their daily lives easier ― even if it only costs a little bit of money ― we can’t help with now.”
Katie Spriggs, executive director of the Eastern Panhandle Empowerment Center, said her agency can no longer afford to provide any financial support to its clients. In addition to helping clients find permanent housing ― which moves them out of shelter, opening up a spot for another person in need ― the shelter also offers support for taxi rides to appointments and prescription medicines.
“The things that we know they need to make their daily lives easier ― even if it only costs a little bit of money ― we can’t help with now,” she said.
Many of their clients live in extreme poverty, she said. For some, financial insecurity is the main reason why they don’t leave their partners. They simply can’t afford it.
“People will call and say ’I would love to come in, but I have no way to get to work on Monday, or no way to get my kids to school,” she explained. “We used to tell them not to worry because we could alleviate some of that financial burden. But now we can’t because we don’t have any money.”
The center has also been forced to halt another crucial program: Mobile outreach. Normally, advocates make daily trips to visit abuse victims in their own homes who can’t make it into the shelter for services.
Many women in the community don’t own vehicles, Spriggs added. Others are too sick or depressed to leave the house or have young children.
“So we meet them where they are,” she said.
Advocates will assess their needs and help them fill out paperwork for court, such as protective orders and divorce and custody filings, and do safety planning.
Spriggs said she was concerned about the victims who are missing out on services because they cannot make it into the shelter. She is also concerned about having to lay off staff. If the shutdown does not end within two weeks, that will become a reality, she said.
Inside the shelter, the mood was somber.
Lisa, a 45-year-old woman with a traumatic brain injury, said she had been living in the shelter for two months. The shutdown had already negatively impacted her life.
The shelter could not afford to pay for her transport to her doctor’s office, so she had missed a few medical appointments. They couldn’t pay for her prescriptions at CVS, so she was going without. And instead of the hot meals usually served, they were eating a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, she said. Food was being rationed to save money.
“You can feel the stress in the air,” she said. “We try to work as a family, they are a lot of very wonderful women here, but it is hard right now.”