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What If Leaving Your Abuser Means Living on the Street? How Budget-Cuts Make Life Even Harder for Abused Women

Budget cuts have strained domestic violence resources. What does that mean for women who need a safe place to go?

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Thanks to the efforts of groups of women who founded the first shelters, often as consciousness-raising groups, there are around 2,000 shelters nationwide that help women trying to escape their abusers.

But the hard work of domestic violence advocates is not nearly enough, especially now. It's no match for lawmakers worshipful of budget cuts at federal and state level, and an economy that drives up need at the same time it cuts down resources. The comforting Lifetime movie myth that the hard part is leaving -- that once a woman has mustered the courage to walk away, she'll be greeted by kindly strangers offering clean beds -- is totally false. 

In 2011, the Domestic Violence Hotline  was unable to answer 87,000 phone calls that came in. In 2009, 167,069 women seeking shelter were turned away. In just one day in 2011,  10,581 women trying to find a place to stay were told there was no space for them. 43% of shelters have reported a  decrease of services offered. 

Katheryn Preston, executive director of the Georgia Alliance to End Homelessness, says that as often as once a day, a battered woman will call asking if there is space for her at a homeless shelter. When they're directed to domestic violence services, they often say that they've already tried that. 

"A lot of women who call here tell us they've already spoken to a hotline. When we go to give them their number, they'll say, no space right now," she says. "It's one of two things: no imminent danger or no space available."

Space in domestic violence shelters is always tight, so providers must judge whether a woman is in "imminent danger" before giving her a scarce bed. Usually, if she's already left her abuser, particularly if she's in a different state, she won't fit the criteria. (Preston points out that state boundaries do not magically keep out determined abusers.)

Many domestic violence shelters have long waiting lists anyway, and may refer a woman who  is in imminent danger to a shelter far away from where she lives, which can be its own nightmare. "It means they have to pull kids out of school," says NNEDV's Kim Gandy. "Quit your job, and now you can't feed them." It's also harder to access benefits or child support. 

"Women may experience delays and frustration, and it essentially means that they're more like to give up leaving," says Beth Meeks, one of many  Louisiana advocates who spent the year trying to stop Bobby Jindal from dumping millions from the state's budget for domestic violence services. 

Julee Smith, who runs a shelter in Utah that is expected to lose 23 percent of its budget, described to  how heartbreaking it is to turn women away:

"We literally had a lady call, she had four children and begged to get in our shelter," Smith said. "She said, 'I have 45 minutes to get out.' And we said 'We're sorry, we don't have any room.' And then the police call and say that she has been abused again." 

A homeless shelter is another less than ideal place for families to end up. Besides the fact that programs aiding the homeless are also perennially underfunded, being around a bunch of strange men may not be comforting to a woman who has just escaped one who hits her. Plus, homeless shelter staff aren't trained in the most important job of all: keeping the victim away from their abuser. Unlike domestic violence shelters, homeless shelters have public addresses. 

There have been times, Preston says, when someone has called looking for a woman, and she's been pretty sure it was a relative or friend of the abuser helping to track her down. 

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