Not Enough Room, Not Enough Money, Turning People Away: The Recession and Domestic Violence Shelters

A recent article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette suggests that the recession is exacerbating the already arduous situations of domestic violence victims. Mackenzie Carpenter writes that “the stresses of the past year’s recession and continued financial uncertainty” are both “fueling increases in abuse” and “making it harder for victims to escape it.”

She recounts the terrifying, but not unusual, story of a 38-year-old Millvale woman whose boyfriend began to beat her more and more frequently after she lost her disability benefits, and money got tight: “He pulled her up by her neck, pointed a gun at her, tried to break her hand and told her he would like to kill her.” When she called a domestic violence shelter, they told her that they were full, and she would need to try to find a friend she could stay with, and as she says, “finally a few days later, I called [the shelter] back and they took me in.”

“She was lucky,” says Carpenter, who follows up with these statistics:

Five years ago, 72 women and children were turned away by the shelter, a number that rose steadily but slowly until last year, when 600 women and children were turned away, up from 222 the year before. For the first four months of this fiscal year, which began July 1 and ends June 30, 445 people already have been told to go elsewhere, which means the shelter is on track to set a record.

Shirl Regan, the director of the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, notes, “It’s been an explosion,” while Janet Scott, the associate director, calls the numbers “unprecedented” and adds that “I have never experienced so long a period where we were consistently full.” Although they are constantly on the phone trying to find other shelters in the regions where women and children can stay, those shelters are often full, in which case they are placed in facilities for homeless people. Carpenter adds that the same trend can be seen nationally. “According to the 2008 National Census of Domestic Violence Services, 8,927 victims were denied services during a one-day census conducted Sept. 17, 2008. That’s up from 7,707 on the same day in 2007.”

After officials at the Pittsburgh shelter started noticing a substantial jump in the number of women looking for a place to stay, they decided to ask victims whether the abuse was tied to financial worries. As of July, 68% have said yes.

Still, Brian Namey, spokesman for the National Network to End Domestic Violence, cautions against blaming the economic downturn alone for the prevalence of abuse: “The recession does not cause domestic violence, but an economic downturn can exacerbate existing abuse,” he said. “A poor economy can increase stress levels in relationships and limit options for victims to escape violent relationships.” Additionally, job loss can cause abusers to be home more frequently.

On top of all this, the recession has caused shelters to receive much less help from federal funds. Whereas the shelter used to be able to help some women transition to new housing by paying their security deposit and first month’s rent, this practice cannot be sustained in the midst of a poor economy, making it more difficult for women to start a new life outside of the shelter. Despite the growing number of obstacles, Regan says that they will not stop trying to help every woman and child who shows up at the shelter: “We will do everything we can to help families stay safe. Even if we don’t have room, we’ll find a way.”

For more information on the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, and the great work they do, click here.

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