Why Are There So Many Empty Beds in Domestic Violence Shelters?

Emily Shugerman
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

Domestic violence experts around the country braced for an increase in abuse at the start of the coronavirus pandemic: The crisis had the disruptive markings of a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina, when domestic violence reports nearly doubled, with economic effects similar to those of the Great Recession, when rates of intimate partner violence surged across the country.

But while many cities have reported increases in the number of calls to hotlines and law enforcement, domestic violence shelters say they are still waiting for survivors to show up at their doors.

At the Violence Intervention Program, the only domestic violence program in New York City that works specifically with Latinx survivors, shelter occupancy rates were down 5 to 10 percent last month—a noticeable difference for a shelter that only has about 50 beds. At the same time, the number of people calling to seek shelter markedly increased. On the week of April 19, the shelter saw the most traffic to their hotline it had seen all year, according to executive director Margarita Guzmán. The number of calls only increased from there.

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The program’s shelters use what is known as a “scattered-site safe dwelling”—a network of apartments in which families have their own bedrooms but share a bathroom and kitchen—and Guzmán said many callers backed down after hearing about the shared amenities. Some victims had been calling back for weeks, still weighing their options, she said. 

“Once people hear there's a shared bathroom and shared kitchen, that really creates a whole new situation for them,” Guzmán said. “They have to navigate, ‘Do I stick with the violence… or do I take a risk with me and my kids, and potentially expose them to coronavirus?’”

The problem isn’t limited to New York, where the virus has spread fastest. An Ohio shelter reported more than 20 open beds in its 120-person shelter earlier this month, despite usually operating at full capacity. In Texas, a domestic violence shelter that usually houses around 60 people a day is now down to 15. Shelters across Michigan reported occupancy rate declining anywhere from 30 to 50 percent.

“We have people in our shelter, we have people calling us, but not at the same volume, and not at the same length of time,” Barbara Niess-May, the executive director of SafeHouse Center in Ann-Arbor, told the Detroit Free Press. “This is what keeps me awake at night.”

That’s not because rates of domestic violence are down—rates of domestic violence in New York spiked 30 percent last month, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo; across the country, 18 of 22 law enforcement agencies surveyed by NBC News said they also saw an increase in reports. 

And it’s not just because of fears about the virus. Advocates say lockdowns have isolated victims from their support networks, giving them fewer places to go, while trapping them with their abuser for long stretches of time, giving them few opportunities to escape. At WomanKind, a domestic violence program serving the Asian American community in New York, CEO Nikki Sheth said one of her clients was recently caught by her abuser while trying to escape. Case managers said they were having trouble reaching their existing clients, because they didn’t know when would be a safe time to call. 

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Even some hotlines saw a decrease in calls at the beginning of the pandemic, as survivors struggled to get a moment alone. New York domestic violence organization Sanctuary for Families noticed a marked drop in calls at the outset of the city’s shutdown, even as its website traffic surged, legal director Dorchen Leidholdt said in a recent town hall. Leaving work late one night this month, Leidholdt said, she found a woman and her children standing outside the organization’s shuttered offices. The woman didn’t have a phone or computer with which to get in touch.

“That underscores there are survivors out here that we are not reaching, and that worries us a lot,” Leidholt said.

Financial insecurity can also drive survivors away from shelters and into the arms of abusers. Rachel Krinsky, the executive director of the LifeWire domestic violence program in Bellevue, Washington, said many of her clients work in hospitality and have lost their jobs during the lockdowns. Others work in health care and have been forced to choose between making a living or possibly contracting the virus.

“A lot of folks who have been living on the edge, eking by, trying to figure out how to make this new life happen face a lot of pressure to return to abusers,” she said.

At WomanKind, legal manager Alisha Mohammed said fewer calls were being referred to the legal helpline, as most victims were calling to ask about food or benefits, not legal advice. One woman who lost her job had recently secured a protective order against her husband, but was now wondering about the impact of letting him back into the home. “In her mind right now, him coming home is the best option,” Mohammed said.

The shelters are also struggling for resources. Patricia Tototzintle, the chief executive officer of Casa De Esperanza in Minnesota, said her shelter usually stockpiles supplies for only two weeks at a time, so the nationwide run on toilet paper at the start of the pandemic left them empty-handed. It didn’t help that stores like Sam’s Club and Costco were limiting the kinds of bulk purchases they needed to supply their dozen or so residents. One advocate at WomanKind said she spent hours one day calling grocery stores to see who would deliver because their local grocery store stopped doing house calls.

At the same time, the shelters are having to work harder for their existing clients, as therapy, legal services and intervention programs have moved online or shut down. Advocates at WomanKind have been helping shelter residents who lost their job apply for unemployment and advising other survivors on how to get benefits now that many government offices are closed. 

To account for these disruptions, shelters have had to get creative. WomanKind is asking volunteers to grocery shop for its residents, while the Violence Intervention Program has started simply handing out cash to its neediest clients. LifeWire is working with a local company to provide diapers and wipes that employees put through the shelter doors at scheduled hours. Other organizations are working with hotels to put up survivors in vacant rooms; some are sending promissory letters to landlords to prevent evictions.

Advocates say they still expect to see a flood of survivors seeking shelter when lockdown orders are lifted.

“It’s not like violence just started because of this isolation,” Sheth said. “Domestic violence has been there in their lives: It’s really often just turning up the volume.”

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