Domestic Violence, Homelessness and the Coronavirus

Domestic Violence, Homelessness and the Coronavirus

By Molly Harbarger | The Oregonian/OregonLive

At night, Carolyn Sterling knows she can hear him outside her tent. So she keeps quiet and keeps to herself.

If he comes around during the day, she’ll walk through the gathering of homeless campers who line one end of Couch Park in Northwest Portland as if she doesn’t have a care in the world, just to send him a message that he can’t get to her.

But she is also scared. Because he has before.

“It’s just hell,” Sterling said. “It’s bad, and I’m scared and there’s nothing to protect me right now.”

Sterling is one of dozens of people experiencing domestic violence — or rightfully fearing they might — who have become more visible in food lines but harder for social service workers to track amid the pandemic. Victim advocates say it is more daunting than ever for affected Portlanders find to find safety and security from abusers.

Services are still available. Crisis hot lines are still answering calls. Advocates have adapted as best they can to get those in domestic violence situations the help they need even when they can’t contact them in person.

But it’s gotten more difficult to provide victims and potential victims, mostly financially strapped women, an exit from a bad situation, and nonprofit and agency budgets are strained by the effort.

The Oregon Legislature’s Emergency Board allocated $2 million in extra funding to the domestic violence services system in April, a welcome infusion of cash. But it won’t go very far, according to workers in the system.

“We will go through it all so quickly,” said Fay Schuler, executive director of Portland-based crisis line Call to Safety.

Even before the stay-home order in mid-March, she struggled to find enough room in shelters or affordable housing for women needing to relocate to safety and funding for staff to assist them, Schuler said. The pandemic is just thrusting the problem into the spotlight.

“The system is broken. There’s just never been enough resources and we’ve never had a solution for domestic violence that’s survivor-centered,” Schuler said.

CALLS INCREASE AMID PANDEMIC

Call to Safety helps Oregonians experiencing domestic abuse. An advocate picks up the phone or responds to a text and helps create a plan for the person at the other end to stay safe or get out of a violent situation. That work is still happening — in fact, the organization extended its hours when people can call or text for help.

But these days staffers sometimes have little to offer other than a voucher to pay for a night in a motel or a train ride to relatives.

Schuler said people are tapping those funds more than ever.

The transportation offer was usually not a first choice before, but now people are agreeing to stay with family in Texas or California at a rate she hasn’t seen before. And they are blowing through the motel vouchers.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Call to Safety has used its entire annual budget for motel vouchers, and the need is only increasing. That’s about $300,000 worth of nights in motels.

Calls to the crisis line increased 10% in April over the year before, Schuler said. The “lethality” of circumstances — the chances of death if a person must stay in an abusive situation — has also increased.

Guns are in the home. Abusers are more consistently violent. Schuler and her colleagues judge those rates by the reports of people who call in.

Police data appears to back up their assertions.

For instance, Clark County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Brent Waddell said that harassment calls, a measure the sheriff’s office uses to measure domestic violence reports, have increased by about 40% over the former highest average for this time period. Calls about restraining order violations have also skyrocketed, mostly due to abusers who leverage the governors’ stay-home orders to convince the person who obtained the restraining order to let them back home.

Waddell is also serving as a case manager right now, so he is going through every newly filed arrest report and said it appears that domestic violence assaults have also increased.

The Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office shows a 40% increase in felony domestic violence cases referred for prosecution from local law enforcement in April. While some of those cases might be older than the pandemic, there were more cases received than the past three Aprils.

And Clackamas County’s district attorney’s office saw a 47% increase in domestic violence cases last month over its April average.

That’s partly why Schuler must blow so much of her budget on motel vouchers. Before the pandemic, she said, her organization determined about one person a month seemed at high risk of death and needed to be in a motel right now.

Now, the average is seven.

STUCK ON THE STREET

Sterling, 66, lived in a motel room after leaving a homeless shelter, where she had been staying with her ex-husband. She acknowledges she had returned to her ex-husband in the past, a cycle experienced by many abuse survivors.

She was on track to get an apartment in an affordable housing complex.

She has a restraining order.

But agencies can’t put victims up in hotels for unlimited amounts of time, even when they think it’s best. Sterling said she left the motel because her ex-husband found her there and she felt unsafe. The apartment fell through because of the wreck her ex made of her finances, she said.

In March, just as the city was shutting down, Sterling got a tent from Rose Haven, a day center for cisgender and transgender women, and set it up just a block and a half away.

She said that it’s clear her ex-husband doesn’t mind ignoring her restraining order, but at least she can be close to the one place she feels safe and comfortable right now.

The community at Rose Haven is a small luxury for the women who gather outside of First Immanuel Luther Church in Northwest Portland. Rose Haven, housed at the church but not affiliated with its ministry, used to allow women to come inside and hang out for most of the day, but social distancing protocols have moved their operations outside and reduced the hours to 9 a.m. to noon.

The women can get a meal, pick up tents and sleeping bags and spend time with other women who are homeless or on the edge of it. Nearly all of them have also experienced some form of emotional, physical or sexual abuse either while living on the street or as the cause for why they are on the street now.

Dorothy Pepper walked out of her apartment one day in September after years of abuse by several partners. She had to leave everything, she said. Since then, she has received some medical help but the camping supplies and emotional support she gets from Rose Haven are about all she has.

She is frustrated that her only source of income now is what she can gather from holding up a sign asking for change while she waits for space in shelters or other services. Even with a cane, a painful hip injury makes it hard for her to traverse town and stand outside in lines at the places that are offering food or other services.

Christine Keery, a Rose Haven social worker who helps women experiencing domestic violence, tries to connect Pepper to as many places to get money, food and help as possible. But she feels she can offer little more than a sympathetic ear these days.

“It’s frustrating to see ladies not being able to find a safe place, because now they’re stuck in the loop of homelessness and poverty,” Keery said. “What got them here in the first place is domestic violence.”

Before coronavirus, she could at least reliably send women to one or two empty beds at a publicly funded homeless shelter that remained open at the end of the day. Now, she can almost never find a place inside, even when the circumstances seem dire.

Often, she all she can do is provides a phone for the women to dial Call to Safety.

“They come to us and what?,” Keery said with a defeated lift of her shoulders. “We give them a tent?”

Rose Haven domestic violence 4_30_2020
Dorothy Pepper became homeless when she left an abusive partner. She is now frustrated that she must ask for money on the street to survive, and is especially frustrated that the services she could receive for her medical and psychological needs are paused during coronavirus. Photo by Mark Graves/The Oregonian Mark GravesMark Graves

‘ALMOST AT A STANDSTILL’

El Programa Hispano Católico runs the only domestic violence program specifically designed for the Latinx community in Portland. It is so tapped out that people who call its crisis line are most often referred to other nonprofits that don’t have many Spanish-speaking staff.

That program, UNICA, is serving its clients virtually and has adapted as much as possible to the pandemic restrictions. But calls are coming at the same pace as always while shelters are either shut to new arrivals or slow to move people out, forcing those who can’t stay in an untenable situation into homelessness.

“Our communities of color especially have already been disproportionately impacted” by homelessness, said El Programa Deputy Director Brigitte Rodriguez. “When you add to that domestic violence or sexual assault, the pandemic — it’s a little more challenging.”

So the staff who answer the phone spend a lot of time triaging callers, connecting them to the services available in the meantime, moving them into motels and talking through back-up plans if the caller decides to stay with an abuser for the time being.

While the call load hasn’t gone through the roof, the severity of the circumstances has ratcheted up, Rodriguez said.

That indicates to her that when the stay-home orders lift, UNICA will receive an avalanche of calls from people who haven’t had an opportunity to get away from a controlling partner.

Alexis Robinson-Wood, director of development for domestic violence shelter operator Bradley-Angle, is preparing for that. Bradley-Angle’s shelter is technically admitting new residents, but as the only domestic violence shelter doing so, the unmet demand is stacking up.

The nonprofit’s staff are desperately trying to move people into housing from the shelter to open more beds, but that is as tough for the domestic violence system as it is for the homelessness system. Advocates struggle to meet with landlords and process paperwork fast enough. The flow in and out of the shelter has nearly stopped.

“The problem is not so much whether or not we’re open, but whether or not we’re able to have the space,” Robinson-Wood said. “Now, it’s almost at a standstill.”

A DOOR TO LOCK

Carolyn Sterling bought a phone at the end of April because she had a telephonic court date. She had to testify against her ex-husband in a case in which he was accused of beating her.

Dressed in all black and white, complemented by her tiny white companion dog Aft, she rustled out of her tent on the morning of the court date and marched her phone down to Rose Haven to charge.

Sterling talks confidently and fast, she makes no bones about how much marijuana she has turned to smoking to manage the stress of her daily life. She admits that she has gotten into conflict with some domestic violence service providers and feels let down by the system.

She apologizes for swearing when saying that she won’t be messed with anymore but means it that much. She’s gotten tough, she said.

But having a cellphone – which can let people she doesn’t want to talk to reach her — makes her a little anxious. And preparing to testify against someone she said has broken her arm, cracked her pelvis and punched her in the head felt a little bit more nerve-wracking as a disembodied voice than in person.

Sterling hopes that her case is successful but expects her ex will be back once he is released from jail.

She likely won’t feel safe until she has a door to lock, she said, but she hasn’t gotten to touch a doorknob much since the pandemic started, so that feels far away.

If you are experiencing domestic violence, here are resources mentioned in the story:

Call to Safety: 1-888-235-5333 or 503-235-5333

El Programa Hispano Católico’s UNICA program: 503-232-4448

Rose Haven: open 9 a.m. to noon, Monday through Friday, at 627 N.W. 18th Ave. in Portland

Bradley Angle

— Molly Harbarger

mharbarger@oregonian.com | 503-294-5923 | @MollyHarbarger

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