As she left the emergency room, a victim of domestic violence contacted a shelter in Minnesota looking for a safe place to stay. But the shelter said it had no space for her. She got the same answer from three other service providers in the area. The shelter dug up some money to pay for her to stay in a hotel for a few nights, but it didn’t last. “After that, she had nowhere to go,” the shelter told the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV). “She told us she’s thinking of going back to her abuser.”
The same thing happened to a victim in Kentucky seeking shelter for her and her three children. She was turned away by the shelters in her community, all of which were full. Another woman called a shelter in Arizona from another state, but it didn’t have the funding to transport her. “She was desperate and begging for help,” the shelter said. “We called every organization we could think of who could help, but none of us had the resources.”
These women’s stories aren’t isolated incidents. According to the NNEDV’s annual survey of domestic violence service providers, on a given day in 2015, 12,197 victims who sought help had to be turned away.
“While domestic violence programs must face the untenable reality of being unable to help everyone who comes to their door, survivors face the ultimate consequences,” the report states. “They are often left with few options for safety.” The choices they’re left with are dire. Some victims remain with their abusers; others risk homelessness or move out of town, which could cost them their jobs and communities. Some shelters warn that they could very well end up dead.
Victims’ needs are varied: a safe place to stay, transportation away from an abuser or to a court appearance, childcare while they go to court, or help with legal representation.
Most of the people turned away are seeking shelter: 41 percent of the unmet requests were for emergency shelter, while 22 percent were for transitional housing or some other housing service. Yet 72 programs reduced or eliminated their housing services last year altogether. This left victims exposed and vulnerable to their abusers. “Many abusers are incredibly dangerous right after a survivor leaves; they often stalk the survivor and pose a deadly threat,” NNEDV writes. “Emergency shelter, transitional housing and long-term housing are critical in helping survivors permanently escape violence. However, in most communities, the demand for emergency shelter far outpaces availability.”
Another 36 percent of victims were turned away while looking for other services. After shelter, legal services is the second-most sought after need. “Without proper legal representation or advocacy, survivors and their families continue to struggle with safety issues,” NNEDV notes. But 83 programs reduced or scrapped their legal advocacy programs that offer someone to accompany victims to court, while 78 cut back on legal representation services.
Without legal assistance, many victims are left vulnerable to further abuse. A shelter in Washington told NNEDV that a victim who couldn’t afford legal representation came seeking assistance, but it couldn’t provide her with legal resources. “Because she had to represent herself, she was unsuccessful in responding to the abuser’s attorney’s legal tactics,” it said. “The result was an order that required her to see her abuser weekly when exchanging the children for visitation. This is causing her great anxiety and fear.”
Beyond cutting programs, many service providers had to eliminate staff. Last year, they laid off 1,235 staff members, or an average of 1.4 people each. That comes on top of 1,392 staff that were cut in 2014. Nearly 80 percent of the staff eliminated last year were in direct service positions, such as case managers, advocates, and shelter staff.
These hardships — big cutbacks at providers that leave victims without the help they need — stem from a lack of resources. The most common cause that shelters cited last year for not being able to meet all of the demand, at about a quarter of providers, was a reduction in government funding, while another 14 percent pointed to cuts in private funding. “Through the recession and recovery, domestic violence programs have faced reduced and unsteady funding on the federal, state and local levels, which forced many programs to reduce services and caused some to permanently close their doors,” the report says. “While recently some funding streams have been increased or restored at the federal level, many programs are only beginning to rebuild after repeated cuts.”
The good news is that even with all of these limitations, providers successfully served nearly 72,000 people last year on a given day, more than 40,000 who got shelter. But shelters also report increases in need, and the number of people turned away when they come seeking help has grown steadily over the past three years.