Story by: Lisa Backus
Katherine Verano is wrestling with an 830 percent increase in costs compared with last year for hoteling victims of domestic violence during the coronavirus pandemic.
After a quiet period during the first months of the pandemic, when much of the state was locked down, domestic violence shelters started running at about 150 percent capacity during the summer months. When providers ran out of room for social distancing, clients had to be placed in hotels and fed.
It’s been a complex time, said Verano, executive director of Safe Futures, a New London-based nonprofit dedicated to providing counseling, services and shelter to victims of domestic violence in 21 southeastern towns.
“Everyone is overtaxed. Everybody needs resources,” said Verano, who has seen her budget for hoteling clients increase steadily this year. “The effect on nonprofits has been dramatic. It’s very challenging, very stressful.”
Throughout the state, the 18 nonprofits that make up a network of service providers for domestic violence victims are seeing a combined $350,000 gap in their budgets as of Sept. 1, primarily due to increased hotel costs, according to Liza Andrews, director of Public Policy and Communications for the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
“Shelter utilization has been up for everyone,” particularly in urban areas, Andrews said.
Anecdotal evidence also suggests that domestic violence incidents have been more violent during the pandemic, shelter managers say. But at the same time, the number of deaths due to intimate partner violence has dropped this year from an average of 14 a year to six confirmed and two unconfirmed as of the end of last week, state officials said.
CCADV Chief Executive Officer Karen Jarmoc is working on ways to fill the budget gap. But Andrews said nonprofits throughout the state that also have been impacted by the public health crisis are competing for the same federal funding and private donation dollars.
Safe Futures and the Prudence Crandall Center in New Britain racked up more than $60,000 each in hotel costs through the end of August, Andrews said. The tally doesn’t include money to feed the victims who are being housed at hotels. Interval House in Hartford has spent over $50,000 in hotel costs.
Barbara Damon, who heads the Prudence Crandall Center, is calling on private donors to help close the organization’s $70,000 budget gap.
“It’s been an interesting time,” Damon said. “Calls for our services in March, April and the beginning of May were flat or decreased, including those people who were looking for shelter.”
But as the state opened up in May, “all of that changed,” Damon said. “We have a 22-bed shelter and had 37 people who needed shelter. We had 18 in hotel rooms just to keep up.”
Damon also said that incidents appear to be getting more serious. “We’re seeing much more severe abuse and really high-risk cases,” Damon said. “These folks really don’t have any other place to go.”
Like other shelters, calls for service at The Center for Family Justice in Bridgeport had dropped at the start of the pandemic, said Debra Greenwood, president and chief operating officer. But the number of new clients has increased by 58 percent since then, Greenwood said.
“There was a point where we weren’t getting phone calls back because people were afraid to,” Greenwood said. “Communication dropped by 40 percent. But they started coming to the front door and talking to us through the intercom.” The Bridgeport center has spent more than $20,000 for hotels and food.
There are a couple of explanations for the decrease in the number of calls for help as families were required to stay home in close quarters during the state’s prolonged shutdown, providers said. Victims may have been unable to call because the abuser has been home due to restrictions or reduced work hours, some providers said. It’s nearly impossible to file for a restraining order online while the abuser is home every day, Verano said.
“Some people are saying things are getting worse because of the stress put on families. Financial issues are always a big trigger for an abuser who feels the need to control things,” Andrews said. “We’ve heard from others that it’s been better because the abuser feels completely in control because everyone is home.”
But Verano also thinks it was because victims were making sure to tread more carefully so as not to anger an abuser. “As a victim, I’m going to minimize me so much. I’m not going to fight back, and I’m not going to leave,” Verano said.
People were afraid to go to a shelter during the height of the pandemic since it meant a congregate living situation where the virus can easily spread, Verano said. “There were so many factors for a victim in leaving at that time,” she said.
Statewide shelters are now at 122 percent capacity, which is on par with the months before the pandemic. But Andrews cautioned that the $350,000 shortfall as of Aug. 31 might increase by the end of the year if the need to hotel more victims rises again, Andrews said.
Verano was still in the process of digging out from the $60,000 deficit when New London recently became a hot spot for increasing COVID-19 infections.
State officials issued an alert last Thursday asking New London residents to take extra precautions, such as limiting trips outside the house and using masks, as positive tests for COVID-19 and hospitalizations are on the rise.
Last year, from March to August, Verano spent $7,220.47 in hotel costs. This year during the same period, she spent $67,202—nearly an 830 percent increase.
The increased hotel costs were due in part to Verano’s inability to transfer clients to other shelters throughout the state as the pandemic made its way through Connecticut. By August, when the number of COVID-19 cases had gone down, she was able to send some clients to other towns. But now she’s looking at the potential for a wave of new victims seeking shelter who can’t be placed in other parts of the state because of the uptick in cases in New London.
It’s “very concerning,” she said. “What this means is that our hotel costs will escalate once again.”
Verano has received some federal, grant and foundation funding and private donations to make up the difference and Safe Futures hosted a fundraiser recently. But it’s not going to be enough, she said.
“We had our walk. Unfortunately, we did not reach our goal as everyone is pretty tapped out,” Verano said.
Need to connect to a domestic violence advocate? Call or text: 1−888-774-2900 or go to CTSafeConnect.org
This story was reported under a partnership with the Connecticut Health I-Team ( c-hit.org ), a nonprofit news organization dedicated to health reporting.