Empty Hotel Rooms Provide Safe Haven For Domestic Violence Survivors During The Pandemic

With domestic violence rising, DV shelters struggle to protect victims from both their abusers and the coronavirus.

In mid-March, as COVID-19 cases mounted around the country, the Safe Alliance domestic violence shelter in Charlotte, North Carolina, was filled to capacity. It was housing 120 people, a mix of families and singles, many of them doubled up in shared rooms. “We knew that with 120 people in one building, if one person gets sick, we’d be in bad shape,’’ said Safe Alliance president and CEO Karen Parker. She found herself faced with the nearly impossible task of protecting residents from their abusers and from the coronavirus.

Abuse in the home is all about isolation and control. As states and counties made efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus, abusers nationwide got handed one of their most effective weapons yet: stay-at-home orders.

Police departments in Charlotte, and across the country, have reported a surge in calls from domestic violence victims during lockdown. With families confined in their homes, alcohol sales skyrocketing and gun sales soaring, abusive relationships have the potential for even graver harm, advocates say. The two-week period starting March 28 saw a weekly average of 22 cases of murder-suicide nationally, compared to a weekly average of 11 since the year 2011, said Casey Gwinn, the president of the Alliance for HOPE International, a training and advocacy organization. All of the perpetrators were men and nearly all of those murdered were women and children. “They are victims of the pandemic within the pandemic,’’ he said.

Abusive partners are using COVID-19 to “further isolate, coerce or increase fear in the relationship,” according to The National Domestic Violence Hotline. Abusers are telling victims that they can’t leave or they’ll get in trouble with the police, said Gwinn. They’re telling their victims that they’ll get sick with COVID-19 if they go. One woman’s abuser strangled her four times in one week, Gwinn said: “She is likely suffering permanent brain damage while he’s telling her, ‘You can’t leave.’”

“They are victims of the pandemic within the pandemic.”

- Casey Gwinn, Alliance for HOPE International

As counties and states begin to reopen and victims successfully leave their abusers, many domestic violence shelter directors fear a surge of victims looking for emergency shelter in the weeks ahead. The challenge of housing those survivors is greater with the threat of the coronavirus spreading in crowded group facilities. To address the competing needs, Mecklenburg County in North Carolina is helping survivors stay safe by putting them up in empty hotels.

In early March, Parker was worried about the threat of coronavirus spreading among the residents at Safe Alliance. Social distancing would be tough to do at the nonprofit’s domestic violence shelter. Survivors eat together. Their children play together. They get group counseling. With the virus looming, those routines were no longer safe.

She reached out to Mecklenburg County’s community support services department, which contributes $1 million in annual funding for the Charlotte shelter, for help. Public Health Director Gibbie Harris incorporated Safe Alliance into her plan to move residents of the county’s homeless shelters into hotel rooms empty of travelers during COVID restrictions.

Mecklenburg County leased three hotels from their owners — a quarantine hotel for those who were sick or who had come in contact with the virus, and two hotels for healthy people. Over the next several weeks, the county moved more than 200 homeless people into the hotels, including 42 Safe Alliance survivors. Others found housing elsewhere, and as of April 28, there were only about 65 people left in the domestic violence shelter.

A picture taken at a shelter for victims of domestic violence in Paris, on August 7, 2019. The French government is paying for hotel rooms for survivors as abuse cases surge in that country amid the pandemic.
A picture taken at a shelter for victims of domestic violence in Paris, on August 7, 2019. The French government is paying for hotel rooms for survivors as abuse cases surge in that country amid the pandemic.
MARTIN BUREAU via Getty Images

If the county had not stepped in with the hotel rooms, Parker said she doesn’t know what she would have done: “We wouldn’t have had a place for people to go.” She now has enough space to safely accommodate current residents, with the ability to move more people into hotels if the shelter gets too full again.

“The fact that the nonprofits and government have been able to be so quick and nimble has been really remarkable,’’ said Karen Pelletier, business manager for Mecklenburg County Community Support Services.

Similar strategies have been adopted in other places in the U.S. and abroad. About two hours away in Wake County, the InterAct domestic violence shelter is paying for hotel rooms for survivors, as is Family Promise in Laramie, Wyoming, and Survive 2 Thrive in Austin, Texas. The Illinois Department of Human Services included hotels in its expansion this month of shelter for domestic violence survivors. At least two counties in California have also turned to hotel rooms — including a Los Angeles program which received a $4.2 million boost from Rihanna and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.

France committed at the end of March to pay for up to 20,000 hotel rooms as domestic violence cases surged in that country under COVID-19 quarantine. And Australian state governments have offered up millions to hotel operators to put up victims.

“It’s a decent option when we’re dealing with a crisis,’’ Parker said, but it is only a temporary fix. Her staff is working long hours despite worries about getting sick and traveling to the hotels to coordinate services. It’s difficult to do case management with people spread out in different locations, Parker said. Plus, the hotels separate a community of survivors who support each other and can no longer talk face-to-face.

And hotel rooms are expensive. Pelletier said Mecklenburg County didn’t get discounted rates for its hotel rooms and has budgeted $1.2 million during the pandemic for the hotels, security guards, food and laundry service. That’s on top of the $2 million the county spends annually to operate its shelters.

“The safety net for victims of violence has always been thin. Now, it’s straining to the breaking point.”

The safety net for victims of violence has always been thin, say advocates. Now, it’s straining to the breaking point.

Often, shelters are operating at capacity on a good day. The National Network to End Domestic Violence takes a random snapshot survey of domestic violence programs across the country every year. On one day in September of last year, 7,732 requests for housing or emergency shelter couldn’t be met because of a lack of space, the survey found.

Amid the pandemic, organizations for survivors around the country are facing increased pressure to stretch limited resources, said Deborah Vagins, the president and CEO of the National Network.

“Our revenues are drying up very fast but we have taken a commitment to keep our doors open,” said Alejandra Castillo, the CEO of YWCA USA, which operates 76 emergency domestic violence shelters nationwide. She said 84% of her shelters saw an increase in hotline call volume during the first week of April and 70% saw an increase in demand for emergency housing. But charitable giving is taking a hit as millions of would-be supporters are laid off, she said. “Demand is skyrocketing while financial resources are dwindling,’’ she said during a press call.

With the added strain resulting from the lockdown, federal funding for domestic violence shelters is needed now more than ever. Congress passed the CARES Act in March for coronavirus relief, which included $45 million for domestic violence programs and emergency housing. But Vagins said that’s not enough.

Among other measures, she would like to see an additional $100 million to flow through the Department of Health and Human Services for the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, which funds a variety of programs, including housing needs. Funds are not assured. Congress must authorize funding for domestic violence programs every year.

Safe Alliance hasn’t gotten any CARES Act funding yet, but it has gotten some much-needed relief from local donations. The organization has received nearly $200,000 from individual donors in recent weeks, mostly through the United Way of Central Carolinas’ COVID-19 emergency fund.

“This crisis is showing the fault lines in our social safety net services in general,’’ Vagins said. “The services who provide help for survivors are woefully underfunded and under-resourced.”

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HuffPost’s “This New World” series is funded by Partners for a New Economy and the Kendeda Fund. All content is editorially independent, with no influence or input from the foundations. If you have an idea or tip for the editorial series, send an email to thisnewworld@huffpost.com.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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