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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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The first time Julianna Martinez's ex-husband hit her in the face, it came out of nowhere. They'd been out dancing, but he left the club early. Later that night she let him into her house and they were sitting there talking. 

"He didn't even seem angry. Then wham, across my face." Afterward he cried, so she forgave him, thinking it was a one-time thing. 

The second time it happened, they were driving through a military base in Germany when he got pissed off because she hadn't been welcoming enough to a fellow soldier's wife. "He turned around and smacked me," she says. "His reason was, I wasn't sitting with her, making her feel comfortable."

She sat there stunned. When she recovered from her shock she jumped out of the car and ran to the office of the army police. Although they were initially separated, they went to marriage counseling.  

It didn't help. Before their son was born, they fought because her husband wanted her to leave the army to spend all of her time raising him. After their son was born, they fought because her husband didn't want her to go to Saudi Arabia with her unit. That fight ended when he stripped off all her clothes and tied her to a weight bench with some T-shirts, which is how she spent the night. The abuse continued through their move back to the US and his exit from the army. They settled in Arizona, where she tried her best to hide the beatings from her children and her friends.

"Of course, he did everything behind closed doors and sneaky," Martinez says. "He used to beat me up and I had black eyes, but once the kids came the beatings were more on my legs, on my torso, on my arms. He stopped hitting me in the face, no more bruises to show, they were all hidden."

That's how she spent 17 years, through what she calls good times and bad times. As long as he just went after her and left the kids alone, she thought that they were all better off staying. 

"My mother [had] disowned me, so where would I go? So I just stayed. It was survival for me, where else do I go?" she says. 

Her fears were not unwarranted. Many women who flee their abusers end up homeless. One 2003 study found that 25% of homeless mothers surveyed said they'd been "kicked, pushed, shoved or otherwise hurt" in the past year. 63% of homeless women have been victimized by their partners, while 92% have been physically or sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. (Men are also the victims of intimate partner violence, but at far lower rates than women.) 

That's just one of the heartbreaking ways poverty and domestic violence are intertwined. If the abuser brings home the money in a low-income house, the choice to send him off to jail may seem impossible. Low-income and minority women, for understandable reasons, may be reluctant to tangle with the criminal justice system, and may be less likely to report abuse to police in the first place. Even the relatively well-off can find themselves in trouble: abusers do not tend to encourage their partners' career aspirations, leaving many battered women financially stuck when getting away can mean poverty. 

Everything gets worse in a bad economy. A lost job or foreclosed home, the stress of long-term unemployment (4.4 million Americans have been without work for 27 weeks or longer) can all trigger violent episodes or worsen abuse. Eight out of 10 shelters surveyed reported more calls for help in the past year and the year before that, going back to the start of the financial crisis when the first survey was taken, according to the Mary Kay Foundation. 

At the same time that more people are looking for help, state and municipal cuts have gutted the budgets of domestic violence shelters. Private donations are also drying up: 90 percent of the National Network to End Domestic Violence state coalitions reported a drop in private funding. The last thing victims and providers need is an abrupt, arbitrary drop in federal funding, but here comes the sequester. 

The cuts, applied across-the-board to federal programs unrelated to the travel plans of lawmakers, are expected to deprive an estimated 106,020 victims of services, according to estimates by the Campaign for Funding to End Domestic and Sexual Violence, U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and others. The cuts imperil everything from shelters, to protective orders to transitional housing. The Violence Against Women Act, which barely survived GOP obstructionism earlier this year, now stands to lose $20 million, according to Justice Department estimates (some groups think that's an underestimate). 

"[These programs] are already very much on the edge," says Kim Gandy, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. "The potential of another 5 percent cut, on top of cut after cut after cut—it's the last straw for some of these programs." 

According to Gandy, a large majority of NNEDV's state member programs are cutting services and staff in anticipation, and some are in danger of closing entirely. Domestic violence groups in states that don't provide funding are especially panicked because their budgets come from federal grants and private donations. 

What does all this mean for a woman who has decided to leave her abuser and needs a safe place to go?

"People will call for emergency shelter and there won't be shelter for them. So they will probably go back to the abusive situation," says Gandy. "If it's just them, they might go sleep under a bridge. But if they've got kids, they might go back to the abuser for shelter and food." 

This can mean the difference between life and death, since more than three women are killed by a husband, boyfriend or ex every day.

***

There's a long history of not doing enough—or doing anything—to help vulnerable women and children in the US, with law enforcement and the judicial system disinclined to intervene in abusive households. Alabama was the first state to reject the idea that a man had a right to beat his wife in 1871, and several states tried to tie criminal penalties to wife-beating after that, but law enforcement mostly tried to keep out of it ("It is better to draw the curtain, shut out the public gaze, and leave the parties to forget and forgive," a North Carolina court ruled in 1874.)

For most of America's history, beating or raping a stranger brought down the full force of law (at least in theory), but doing these things to one's own wife rarely resulted in jail time. When police were forced to mediate a domestic dispute, their primary goal was to calm everybody down and encourage the couple to work it out. Nor was there anywhere for a battered woman to go, a safe place to hide from an abuser who might become even more enraged and dangerous because she ran away.

It took second-wave feminism—and the battered women's movement that grew out of it—to recast domestic violence as a public problem demanding state solutions. Wife-beating was not a thing for cops to throw their hands up in the air and walk away from, but a widespread social blight, an emergency, given the rates of intimate partner homicide, that required a comprehensive public response, from more aggressive policing to state and federal funding for domestic violence resources. 

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 KSL.com  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. 

Preston knows how important it is to have a safe place to go. When her husband came back from Vietnam, he had a drug problem on top of his already existing alcohol problem."I could tell when he'd be triggered, especially by his drinking. The drunker he got, the more angry he would get at somebody else for something stupid. A car would go in front of us, he'd go off. If I would stick up, then it all turned on me. That's when I began to catch it all."

For 13 years she told friends and family her wounds were from, say, playing softball. "They must have thought I was the most accident prone person in the world," she says. But one memorial day, her husband's Wild Turkey-fueled freakout landed her, her sister, and her sister's husband in the hospital, where a nurse who saw their injuries asked if they'd all been in a car accident. 

Now she couldn't hide it from her family anymore, so she left, moving into a new place where he wouldn't be able to find her. She kept the shades shut just in case he tracked her down. One day, he called her at her new place and asked her why she always kept the shades drawn. What was she trying to hide? Did she have a man in there?

"He'd been sitting outside, watching me in my apartment," says Preston. 

Right after she left, she decided to kill him to keep herself and her son safe. She went to a pawn shop looking for a gun, but then she realized what would happen if she missed. "About the worst thing that could happen is I'd miss him, go to jail, spend life in jail for trying to kill him, and he'd raise my son to be a batterer," she says. 

"There were no battered women's shelters at that time, a woman was out there on her own, doing what she needed to do. I was blessed because I had family, or I'd have been out on the street homeless too." 

It's heartbreaking for her to see things get worse and worse as lawmakers callously pull back resources for homeless shelters and domestic violence programs, pretty much everything that America's most needy women and children depend on, sometimes to stay alive.

In 2009, then California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger led the way in using cash earmarked for domestic violence programs to fill state budget gaps. The governor line item vetoed all state funding for shelters, forcing six shelters to close in six weeks and the rest to limit their services. (The funding was restored the next year, after lots of fighting by DV advocates, but around $4 million of previous cuts remained.)

Christine Gregoire's 2011 proposed budget for the state of Washington contained massive cuts to domestic violence funding. 

In February, Iowa cut $1 million from domestic violence and sexual assault programs, reported KWQC, forcing shelters across the state to scramble to make up the funds with private support. Twelve shelters were informed they would no longer get funding so the remaining resources could be spent on the bigger shelters, according to local news sources. 

What makes the cuts especially galling, Kim Gandy notes, is how little money they actually save states. Earlier this year, Bobby Jindal had proposed cutting $2.4 million for domestic violence services, or more or less the price tag of a soccer field and fishing pier the governor had proposed at the same time. 

"In the grand scheme of things that's not that much money for an entire state. It's peanuts," she says. "That tells you how underfunded those programs were to begin with."

"This puts women who are already in physical jepoardy in even greater danger, because of budget cuts. But they found the money to fund the FAA," Gandy says. "Imagine how quickly they found that money."

***

One day, Julianna Martinez's ex-husband turned on the kids. Her son had lost his jacket, and his father slapped him. She jumped between the two of them to protect her son and then it was all over. "He kept pushing me and pushing me and I fell on the floor and he just started beating me." she says. "He screamed, 'That's her problem, that's her whole problem! She'll never be anything, doesn't know how to take care of anybody, or herself, or her kids!'"

Martinez finally left. But she didn't end up in a domestic violence shelter—none of those she called could accomodate her family because her son was too old—but she really wishes she had. It would have given her much-needed time to get her head in order. 

"My other friends I made going through this process ... you need that because you are dazed, you're so used to having someone controlling you and telling you what to do."

Instead, she and her kids lived with friends. It wasn't the street, but still: one little room for all of them, living out of boxes; not an easy existence for a traumatized family. Eventually she moved back into her house (without her husband), and then they tried marriage counseling one last time. One day, their therapist confessed that she was utterly terrified of Martinez's husband. She said her job was patching up marriages, but she didn't want to be responsible for the consequences of saving this one. 

"If I were you, I'd turn around and run," the therapist said. It was the last, last straw, and Martinez managed to extricate herself for good.

She can't believe she waited for so many years. "What was I waiting for?" says Martinez, who now works as a school assistant. "For Superman to come save me? For lightning to hit me or him? Was I waiting for him to kill me?" 

Tana Ganeva is AlterNet's managing editor. Follow her on Twitter or email her at tana@alternet.org.
 
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