This story has been updated.
When Faith Power lies awake at 3 a.m., she says she imagines a woman who is driving around with nowhere to go.
The woman has bruises on her arms, two kids in the back seat and a bag stuffed with anything she could grab before she ran out the door. She calls her local domestic violence shelter: The Laurel Center, in Winchester, Va., where Power is the executive director.
There are no beds, says the voice on the other end of the line.
The woman keeps driving.
Power has always worried about the domestic violence victims she doesn’t have capacity to serve at her 28-bed emergency shelter in western Virginia. But her fears have intensified in the wake of the pandemic, as the Laurel Center has seen heightened demand for its services while weathering some of the most drastic funding cuts in its 40-year history.
“Survivors reach out to us and we have to put them on a waiting list,” Power said. “And we can give them absolutely no idea of when we can provide support.”
The pandemic thrust many domestic violence shelters into a state of emergency, as victims were suddenly trapped at home with their abusers. “We definitely have seen an increase in domestic violence in the pandemic, and we might even see a bigger jump now as victims and survivors are feeling like they can leave their homes,” said Ruth Glenn, president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
While the numbers vary city by city, she said, many police departments have been reporting double-digit increases in the number of domestic violence calls they received in the pandemic compared with the previous year. Reports of domestic violence incidents were up by 10 percent in New York City, 18 percent in San Antonio and 22 percent in Portland. Ore., according to police data that compared March 2020 to March 2019.
To keep residents safe from the coronavirus and comply with social distancing requirements, some shelters began paying for hotel rooms for victims — using money they never thought they’d have to spend.
Now shelters are emerging from the pandemic with depleted resources and burned-out staff, expecting demand to spike again once the federal eviction moratorium lifts on July 31. While they’d been hoping for extra government support to recoup some of their losses, many shelters have instead had to absorb “catastrophic” budget cuts, as resources from the Victims of Crime Act, a fund administered by the Department of Justice, have been reallocated. After several rounds of budget cuts this year, Power said, she lost an additional $610,000 from a grant at the end of May, forcing her to shutter the Laurel Center’s office in Front Royal, Va., which offered counseling and therapy to victims of sexual assault in the area.
Power is worried the Laurel Center may have to close down entirely.
“At some point you just have to say, we can’t do that,” she said. “We don’t have the bandwidth.”
As soon as stay-at-home orders were issued in March 2020, calls started spiking at DC Safe, a domestic violence nonprofit in Washington, D.C., said Michelle Sewell, the crisis shelter director. “Our response line was blowing up,” she said, forcing DC Safe to significantly increase the number of staff assigned to answer hotline calls. When other agencies and organizations shut down or went remote, Sewell said, many clients in D.C. who may have sought help elsewhere came to DC Safe instead. The organization saw a large influx in clients with schizophrenia and other mental health issues, she said. (This story’s reporter was a hotline volunteer at DC Safe from 2014 to 2015.)
“The whole city went dark,” she said. “But our call line was still being answered 24-7.”
Shelters all over the region experienced a spike in demand. From April to June of 2020, Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter in Leesburg, Va., was at 300 percent capacity, said Samantha Clarke, the chief operating officer. Because of coronavirus concerns, LAWS has not used their shelter building since March 2020, said Clarke, paying to house all their clients in other forms of alternative housing instead. Many more clients now require extra attention and safety planning, Clarke added, because the reports of domestic violence have become more severe since the pandemic began, with a “much higher rate of lethality.”
The calls have not subsided as more people get vaccinated and businesses reopen at full capacity, said Vanessa Kulick, the executive director of Choices of Page County, a domestic violence shelter in Luray, Va. By April 2021, she said, their shelter occupancy had tripled since the beginning of the year.
“I don’t know what happened,” she said. “But all of a sudden imminent danger requests were coming in every couple of days.”
While some domestic violence shelters received money from the Cares Act in March 2020, that funding was limited, said Bethany Backes, a professor who specializes in domestic violence at the University of Central Florida. Much of the state and federal funding for domestic violence shelters is distributed through time-limited grants, she said, often covering a period of three years. This funding structure can make it difficult for domestic violence shelters to implement sustainable programs and practices, she said: If the grant is not renewed, the money behind the initiatives disappears.
“You have no control over the ebbs and flows,” Kulick said. Before the pandemic, 85 percent of her shelter’s budget came from state and federal grants, she said.
The Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) has traditionally been one of the largest funding sources for domestic violence shelters across the country, along with the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act and the Violence Against Women Act. But that funding has been slashed because of historically low deposits in VOCA, which draws its money mainly from fines paid for federal offenses. Shelters across the country are “very concerned” about how these cuts might impact their programming, Glenn said. In Virginia, domestic violence shelters are contending with a 60 percent reduction in VOCA funding, according to the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance.
Especially in smaller, rural communities, Glenn said, shelters might be forced to close.
The amount of money allocated for VOCA varies from year to year, said Lauren Lambert, a spokesperson for the Office for Victims of Crime. “The amount of annual federal funds available for Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) Assistance and Compensation awards to the states is determined by a formula run on the amount of money Congress authorizes OVC to obligate each year from the Crime Victims Fund,” she said.
A VOCA Fix bill, which would increase the amount of funds allocated to VOCA — and, by extension, to domestic violence shelters — has been making its way through Congress, passing the U.S. House of Representatives in March. “There is no more important piece of victim rights legislation before the United States Senate at this moment,” Jonathan Yglesias, policy director at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, wrote in an email.
Federal funding sources are not likely to rebound anytime soon. When Power made the decision to close the Laurel Center’s Front Royal office, she called an official from the Department of Criminal Justice. She explained how the cuts had affected the shelter, she said, and asked if anything could be done.
She was told to expect more cuts, she said.
While Power and other shelter directors have tried to diversify their income streams to rely less heavily on grants, they’ve struggled to find other reliable sources of funding in the pandemic. The Laurel Center usually holds several large fundraising events every year. Ticket sales for their most popular fundraiser usually net between $20,000 and $25,000 for the shelter, Power said.
The situation could worsen before it improves. Domestic violence shelters everywhere are bracing for the end of the eviction moratorium, said Power, when even more victims could be left without a place to live. “Domestic violence creates homelessness,” Power said. Many victims will contact the shelter several months after a violent incident, she said, once they have worn out their welcome with friends and family. While the Laurel Center will always do everything in its power to make room for those in imminent danger, the shelter may not be able to prioritize victims who aren’t facing an immediate safety threat, she said.
With housing costs rising across 95 percent of the country, there are fewer affordable properties for victims who are trying to start a new life on their own, Kulick said. In rural Virginia, where Kulick’s shelter is based, housing was always scarce. But the problem has worsened in the pandemic, she said, as more people from the D.C. area have moved out of the city, and others have bought up properties to list on Airbnb.
“Our clients are not great candidates for housing because [many] don’t have jobs,” Kulick said. If they are employed, she said, they’re probably not making much. “We don’t have very livable wages here.” Most jobs in the area pay between $9 and $11 an hour, she said.
When the eviction moratorium lifts, Clarke worries that landlords will be looking for “low-risk tenants.” Many clients at the shelter may have a shaky financial history or rental history that could raise red flags, Clarke said. Sometimes victims have been subject to financial abuse.
“I think we’re going to have a big uphill battle there,” Clarke said. “Survivors are not going to be seen as low-risk tenants.”
Some might have to transition into homeless shelters, she said.
Clarke worries about shelters that might buckle under the added strain — and what that would mean for victims. When most counties in Virginia have only one shelter, she said, “Who else are you going to call?”