Shelters prepare for COVID’s impact on domestic violence victims

Investigations

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Domestic violence shelters are afraid COVID may soon cause them to run out of room, and that’s just one of many recent hurdles.

As the coronavirus spread in Memphis and the city sheltered in place, one group braced what was to come.

“Our hotline increased. Most of the calls were people who were seeking how can I stay safe,” said Marquiepta Odom, executive director of the YWCA in Memphis, a shelter assisting victims of domestic violence.

Odom and her staff were concerned because they knew a lot of victims would be forced to shelter with their abuser.

Now as the economy slowly reopens, Odom says more victims may be able to get away from their abuser and call for help. The YWCA is preparing.

Right now, the YWCA shelters are about half full, but Odom expects space to fill up, especially as the pandemic causes more financial hardships. Evictions start to happen and utility companies expect bills to be paid.

“That adds extra stress and it also, it possibly could cause additional domestic violence situation, so my staff and I are prepared for our numbers to increase,” she said.

To top it off, she says victims typically stay 90-120 days — now, they’re averaging 180 days because it’s been harder to find the victim a stable job or get them the resources needed so they can make it on their own.

Priscilla Blackmon is monitoring the trends because she’s in charge of emergency housing at the Family Safety Center.

Her team provides immediate shelter and then refers people to partner agencies for long-term housing. While the Family Safety Center did get some of the Cares Act funding, they are working to secure even more on their own to prepare for whatever comes.

“We need more shelter,” Blackmon said. “The numbers started to escalate with housing victims and are continually going up this month.”

Prior to COVID, Blackmon said the county already needed more long-term shelters for domestic violence victims. Now they’re even more desperate.

She thinks the county needs about 50 to 100 more beds available per month.

In the first half of the year, compared to the first half of 2019, domestic violence cases decreased 7.8%.

But keep in mind, police believe those numbers are skewed because victims were sheltering with their abusers and were too afraid to reach out.

Another theory is that victims may not have come forward because they were afraid to move into a shelter, worried about communal living increasing their chances of them or their family members getting the virus.

Odom says she gets it. She is a survivor of domestic violence and can’t imagine that fear mixed with the current climate.

She says all they can do is prepare financially by securing some federal funding and working to get more.

They’re also making sure the community knows their doors are always open.

“We are an all inclusive shelter,” she said. “We are here to help.”

If you are a victim and need help, call the 24-hour crisis hotline at 901-249-7611

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