Domestic Violence Shelters Scramble To Keep Doors Open Amid Shutdown

Federal funds are key for these critical programs, which often operate paycheck to paycheck.

Domestic violence shelters across the country are cobbling together funds to keep their doors open as the government shutdown hits the two-week mark.

Most shelters pay their staff, rent and expenses out of pocket, and are repaid with federal funds at the end of each month, Kim Gandy, the president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence explained.

The amount of time a shelter can continue operating without federal funds depends on its cash reserves, access to credit lines, and other sources of funding, such as state grants and private donors.

“A lot of shelters operate on the edge,” she said. “If there is nobody home in the government to send out reimbursement checks, some programs won’t be able to pay next month’s rent.”

On an average day, over 40,000 victims of domestic violence seek refuge in shelters across the nation. An additional 31,000 receive services, including counseling, legal advocacy and children’s support groups.

Domestic violence programs are funded by a number of federal programs. Not all of them are impacted by the shutdown. But two of the major sources of funding ― the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the Victims of Crime Act Fund ― are administered through the Department of Justice. The DOJ is now partially closed due to the shutdown.

Another source of funding comes from the Department of Housing and Urban Development; most of its staff are furloughed.

Lisalyn R. Jacobs, an expert in sexual and domestic violence, noted that many domestic violence programs survive paycheck to paycheck, much like many of the clients they serve.

“Where are these people going to go?”

- Beth Goodrich, executive direction of the Arkansas Coalition Against Domestic Violence

In Arkansas, for example, 32 domestic violence shelters serve all 75 counties. Beth Goodrich, the executive direction of the Arkansas Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said a number of those shelters can last only a few weeks before they need to begin laying off staff or even closing up temporarily.

Goodrich said she has been fielding phone calls from shelter staff across the state who are anxious about the government shutdown.

“Many of our shelters are at capacity right now,” she said. The biggest concern, she added, was where to send the shelter residents if they had to close or lay off staff.

“That’s a question I don’t have an answer for,” Goodrich said. “Where are these people going to go?”

According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 4 women in the U.S. will experience severe physical violence by an intimate partner in her lifetime. An estimated three women a day are killed by their boyfriends, husbands and exes.

If the public wants to help ease the current pressure on shelters, they can donate items such as food, diapers and gas cards to their local shelters, Goodrich added.

Mariah Stidham Wineski, executive director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said shelters in her state ― which rely heavily on federal funds to operate ― knew what to expect with the shutdown after weathering past ones.

“We did our best to prepare for this, but the longer the shutdown goes on, the more precarious our position becomes,” she said.

Wineski was hopeful the shutdown would end soon.

“Until then we will do our best to juggle money and make it work,” she said.

Shelters, which generally provide 24-hour emergency housing, need sufficient staffing around the clock, both for safety reasons and to support their clients, who come with myriad and complex needs. As well as providing a place to stay, domestic violence programs may offer counseling, child care, help finding transitional housing and legal assistance.

“I always like to think of our programs as essential services,” said Tonia Thomas, team coordinator for the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “I wish more people would think that too.”

VAWA, landmark legislation that funds programs for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, also expired when the government shut down on Dec. 22. Advocates believe services will still be funded by Congress until the act is renewed. That’s what happened the last time VAWA expired in 2011.

However, getting VAWA renewed is a huge priority in 2019.

Cindy Southworth, executive vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, said she was on Capitol Hill on Thursday to greet new members of Congress and impress on them the importance of reopening the government for victims of abuse.

“I explained to them we needed their help to end the government shutdown immediately,” she said. “But in addition, I told them we have a vital task ahead of us: to reauthorize a robust and survivor-centered Violence Against Women Act that protects all victims.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated which items could be donated to local shelters.

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