When women arrive at the Family Place, Ashley Jackson hands them a folder with a code to their room. There are fresh sheets and towels waiting for you, Jackson tells them. Your bed is already made.
You can sleep, she says — and you will be safe.
Walking into the Dallas domestic violence shelter at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Jackson found dozens of sheets and towels, drenched and balled up on the ground. The pipes had burst. Water was gushing through the hallways and seeping under doors. In several rooms, the ceiling had buckled, splattering insulation across the carpet like vomit. Women frantically gathered their sopping-wet blankets and sweaters as the shelter’s fire alarm, set off by the sprinklers, wailed in the background.
Some started saying they wanted to leave. Jackson tried to talk them out of it, knowing they might go back to their abusers.
“That’s the whole reason they’re here,” she said. “They don’t have anywhere else to go.”
With three branches in Dallas that serve up to 250 people, the Family Place is at the center of a winter weather crisis that has pummeled much of the South since Sunday, killing at least 47 people and leaving millions without water and electricity. The shelter’s largest branch lost power on Monday. On Wednesday afternoon, 123 women and children crammed into a few rooms that had escaped severe water damage. They had to evacuate, Jackson said. But where would they go?
The shelter is designed to make families safe and comfortable. Many women arrive with bruising on their face and arms, young children in tow. When they fill out their paperwork, Jackson said, they’re often so anxious they have to ask three times for the date. As an advocate, Jackson said, the best part of her job is assuring victims that they can finally relax: No one can find them here. Nothing can hurt them. They have time and space to breathe while they figure out their next move.
Now they are sleeping on cots in a church, six inches apart.
“They were already living in a chaotic situation, and then this happens,” said Family Place chief executive Paige Flink.
Flink took to Twitter as soon as she heard about the flooding. Tagging a host of local officials and state lawmakers, she explained the shelter’s situation and asked for help. Within minutes, she said, she heard from a local pastor, who offered up his church as temporary housing. Two hours later, the women and children were boarding buses to the new location.
It was not an ideal solution. As soon as women saw the conditions in the church, Jackson said, more began asking to leave. There are two bathrooms and two showers for 120 people, Flink said — and most of the women were used to privacy. They’d never lived communally with people they didn’t know. Especially in the middle of a pandemic, they expected to have their own space.
The Family Place has not turned anyone away in the pandemic, Flink said, no matter their covid status. If they needed shelter, she said, the organization has found a way to house them. While the families had already been sharing communal spaces at the shelter, social distancing is much more difficult when you don’t have your own bedroom and bathroom.
“They put their trust in us. We told them, ‘Get on this bus, we will take you somewhere that has heat and power and running water,’” Flink said. “Then they get there and they’re having to sleep in congregate living.”
Many of the women haven’t been sleeping, Jackson said. They’ve been tossing and turning on their cots, required to wear masks through the night.
Case managers at the Family Place have been meeting with each client individually to assess whether she has another place to go, Flink said. Some will mention a family member or a friend who has offered to take them in, but Flink worries those living situations won’t be as safe as the shelter.
The Family Place purposely does not disclose its address to prevent abusers from finding clients who have fled. When clients call the shelter’s hotline and ask for a spot, she said, they send a Lyft to pick them up. The car takes them to a “safe location” near the shelter, so its exact whereabouts stay secret.
With a public name and address that’s easy to Google, Jackson said, the church doesn’t have that kind of security. Talking to friends and family eager to know where they are, clients have been sharing their location. Jackson worries that abusers might start to show up unannounced.
Before families can return to the shelter, Flink has to replace almost all the ceilings in the building, she said, after consulting with a contractor. While only a few gave way completely in the storm, many more have smaller drips, coming through the molding or the light fixtures. Those could collapse at any time, she said, adding, “We have to go back to the studs, or this is going to happen again.”
That process will take at least 12 weeks, she said — longer if the insurance company won’t quickly hand over the money she needs. In the meantime, she is hoping to house families in an extended-stay hotel. She’s not sure whether she can realistically raise enough money for that — it would take approximately $192,000 to house everyone for three months — but she is going to try.
Domestic violence victims have already had to uproot their entire lives, Flink said. “I want to make sure the next stop is the last stop.”
Flink went into the shelter on Wednesday to survey the damage. When she looked around, she said, she cried.
There was plaster all over the sofas, in the potted plants — and a half-eaten hamburger on the dining room table.
Flink couldn’t stop thinking about the woman who had sat down to eat it: She didn’t even have time finish her lunch before she had to flee.