Local Nonprofits Adapt to Help People Survive Domestic Violence During COVID-19

Seeking shelter when home isn't safe

Survive2Thrive CEO Courtney Santana (Photo by John Anderson)

Between March 1 and the last week of April, SAFE Alliance's 24-hour hotline – a first point of contact for those seeking to survive domestic violence, sexual assault and exploitation, and child abuse – received some 2,500 calls, texts, and chats. One was from a woman who couldn't find safety where she had before.

"She'd always been able to run to her neighbors when things were escalating, because they would let her in and then keep her safe," recalled SAFE CEO Kelly White. "Now her neighbors are sheltering in place and aren't going to let somebody else into the house."

As the COVID-19 crisis continues, White said that SAFE, which provides emergency shelter and support services, is hearing such stories everyday. Shelter-in-place orders aim to protect public health during a crisis, but for those experiencing domestic violence, staying home is not the same as being safe, and the orders might create dangerous situations they can't escape.

Shelter-in-place “ends up creating a perfect petri dish of all the awfulness that breeds violence and abuse within a family.” – SAFE Alliance’s Kelly White

A Perfect Petri Dish

Compared to a year ago, there's been an 11% increase in domestic violence calls and a 7% increase in total calls to the SAFEline. A Statesman analysis of Austin Police Depart­ment data found that while total arrests have decreased since Austinites began sheltering in place in response to COVID-19, domestic violence arrests have increased.

The crisis compounds existing forces that often enable domestic violence. Isolation – a key tactic for abusers – is now essential to public health; economic stressors continue to bear down hard on unemployed people and financially strained households. White summarized, "[Shelter-in-place] ends up creating a perfect petri dish of all the awfulness that breeds violence and abuse within a family."

At Hope Alliance in Round Rock – which operates the only family violence shelter in Williamson County – CEO Rick Brown hasn't seen an increase in requests for its emergency shelter and counseling services. "We all believe it isn't because of a lack of want," he stressed; rather, it's because some victims, now trapped with their abusers, can't reach out. "There isn't the moment when they can escape, because the abuser's probably there all the time as well," said Brown.

The troubling circumstances apply to existing clients as well; though Hope pivoted its in-person counseling sessions to video chat, not all clients feel safe participating. "They didn't want to be caught doing video chats by the abuser," said Brown. As such, "a number of those clients have decided to delay their individual counseling sessions until COVID-19 blankets are removed and they start coming back to our counseling center."

Though hotline calls to Hope have remained consistent with last year's numbers – around 50 per week, if not "a little less" – Brown says their urgency seems to be much higher, meaning the caller's situation is more dangerous or potentially lethal. In those high-risk situations, Hope takes its most immediate steps to get callers into its shelter, he explained. But where do callers go if Hope is full, as Brown says it is most of the time? "They're going to have to be transported out of the county in order to find that shelter."

Hope maintains cooperative relationships with agencies throughout Central Texas to address this capacity issue, which existed before COVID-19. In Texas, 42% of those seeking emergency shelter were turned away last year, according to the Texas Council on Family Violence. Last year, Hope served 998 clients, about a third (357) of whom stayed in its shelter for an average of just over three weeks. Still, Brown said Hope had to turn away close to 1,000 clients because it didn't have the bed space or counseling capability. "Clearly a third of those [clients] could have come to our shelter if we [had] a larger space and more beds, but we don't."

From Hotels to Homes

In the age of COVID-19, social distancing guidelines further strain shelters' already limited bed space. Hope's capacity has been cut by around 50%, with 15 to 20 people now living in its shelter instead of its normal max capacity of 30. SAFE has reduced its shelter capacity by at least 10 to reconfigure bedrooms and make space for a quarantine area, although White said nobody's yet tested positive for the novel coronavirus. "It made a huge, big deal to have to start having single women be in a room by themselves rather than to double them up, as we have generally done in the past," she explained.

For survivors unable to access emergency shelter, local nonprofit Survive2Thrive Foun­dation offers help. Since 2013, Sur­vive2Thrive has served those displaced or homeless after leaving violence; its CEO Courtney Santana told us it aims to place clients in semipermanent or permanent housing within 30 days.

Since shelter-in-place orders went into effect, Santana said, she's seen an uptick in requests for the nonprofit's services, including emergency shelter. Some clients who reached out to Survive2Thrive had been waitlisted at shelters; others were afraid to enter the communal environment of a shelter lest they contract COVID-19. By placing survivors in hotel rooms, Santana hopes Survive2Thrive will help people avoid having to choose between remaining in a violent home or potentially getting sick, either in a shelter or on the streets.

"There is a safety net of options available for these survivors, and we want to fill up every possible space and support every possible victim we can through that safety net," said Santana. "I know that we were just really devastated when South By [South­west] was canceled, but it provided the availability to actually help different displaced and homeless communities in the Austin area."

With SXSW's cancellation ushering in a pause on travel during the COVID-19 outbreak, many of Austin's hotels are now nearly empty; hospitality data firm STR estimates that in April, occupancy in Down­town hotels barely exceeded 3%. Before the pandemic, Survive2Thrive partnered with four hotels to house survivors. Now, working with the Austin Hotel and Lodging Association, that number has climbed to between 20 and 40 hotels, according to Santana. While hotels are glad to have customers of any kind, participating hotels must meet Survive2Thrive's safety and amenity guidelines, including certain security measures intended to safeguard against abusers. "When we place somebody in there, we are sure that even if the abuser does find the hotel, they can't get in."

SAFE is addressing its reduced shelter capacity during the pandemic through steps that Kelly White called "Shelter Away." This entails stabilizing clients first in the shelter and then moving them into hotels. "We're working on doing that so that we can get our capacity back up, and not have as many people that are on waitlist and can't get in," she explained.

Immigration attorney Pooja Sethi (Photo by Jana Birchum)

What Lies Ahead

On April 30, Gov. Greg Abbott let his statewide shelter-in-place order expire, with Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell following Abbott's lead. Austin and Travis County's "Stay Home, Work Safe" orders run through May 8 and could be extended by city officials to the degree their provisions don't conflict with the governor's latest "Open Texas" measures (see "Even as Cases Climb, the COVID-19 Rules Begin Unraveling").

Hope's Rick Brown says domestic violence shelters across the state anticipate shelter and service requests are going to "skyrocket" as shelter-in-place orders are lifted. A rise in need, of course, means increased costs – staffing, virtual services, etc. – which will require more funding. SAFE and Survive2Thrive are applying for grants from the city's $15 million COVID-19 local relief fund, dubbed the Relief in a State of Emergency (RISE) Fund. (Hope Alliance only operates outside the city of Austin but has sought philanthropic grants from Williamson County donors.)

Austin has distributed around $5.6 million in the first round of RISE funding to local nonprofits, including $1 million for Asian Family Support Services of Austin, which provides assistance to Asian and other immigrant families experiencing domestic violence. Immigration attorney Pooja Sethi, who sits on the city's Asian American Quality of Life Advisory Commission, spearheaded the AAQL budget recommendation for RISE funds to go toward AFSSA.

Austin Family Support Services' CEO Darlene Lanham (Photo by Daniel P. Frederick/Light My Way Photography)

From her law firm's pro bono work with survivors of violence and abuse, Sethi knew that women who are immigrants experience domestic violence twice as often as others, yet report it less. "That was another reason why it just became really important that these RISE funds reach the communities that need [them] and the people within that community that need [them], because they also are probably not going to have access to the stimulus funds that the federal government is giving," she told the Chronicle.

Applicants need not be AFSSA clients to apply for its RISE funds, but the nonprofit's Executive Director Darlene Lanham said it is serving current clients with its first round of funding, as well as screening applicants to find those who are experiencing domestic violence. Within the first 48 hours of the application opening to the public, AFSSA received 470 applications. "The need is just incredible that we're seeing in the community," said Lanham.

As the pandemic evolves, so too will the services that care for survivors, but their shared mission to end domestic violence and abuse remains intact. "This is a time where we could start to build a more comprehensive solution for survivors," said Santana. "I look at it as an opportunity for us to say, 'All right, now we have a different scenario to answer. How are we going to work together to do so?' Because no one organization is going to be able to do it."

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domestic violence, SAFE Alliance, Kelly White, Hope Alliance, family violence, Rick Brown, Survive2Thrive Foundation, Courtney Santana, Austin Hotel and Lodging Association, Shelter Away, Bill Gravell, Asian Family Support Services of Austin, Pooja Sethi, Darlene Lanham, COVID-19, Relief in a State of Emergency Fund, RISE Fund, Texas Council on Family Violence, SAFEline

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