How The Government Shutdown Leaves Domestic Violence Shelters Hanging By A Thread

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Many domestic violence shelters and services providers are facing intense pressure and uncertainty as the government shutdown drags on. A temporary burst of relief came at the last minute — several providers tell Bustle that government officials notified them either late Thursday or early Friday that their funding will be guaranteed until March 1, after previously issuing warnings to the contrary. Still, employees at domestic violence shelters say the government shutdown leaves their longer-term funding — and their ability to help survivors — in limbo.

"We were pretty terrified that we wouldn't have access to those funds as of this morning at 6 a.m.," Cindy Southworth, Executive Vice President of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), says. "We had been told in January that they had enough administrative money from previous years to be able to keep funds flowing through 6 a.m. on Friday the 18th." Officials emailed NNEDV late in the day on Thursday to alert them that there had been an extension through February.

"We are very relieved," Southworth continues, but adds that this is "not a permanent fix." If Congress still hasn't passed an appropriations bill as the new deadline approaches next month, she warns that "people are going to start panicking again."

This development comes just in time for some providers. Tennessee's CEASE Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault shelter announced on Wednesday that it temporarily laid off 17 members of its staff because of the lapse in funding, but announced early Friday afternoon it would not be doing so after all. Explaining that the Department of Justice had issued funding guarantees until the beginning of March, CEASE wrote on Facebook: "Because of this we will not be laying off advocates or reducing services at this time."

Amanda Pyron, the executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women's Network, also expressed relief about the news, but tells Bustle that another challenge now is making sure clients know that services are still available.

Pyron says the network had initially issued warnings about a potential lapse in resources. "Now, we need to kind of do the opposite messaging," she says, "of — 'OK, we're here, we're ready to serve you, and no worries, we're going to be open for the foreseeable future.'"

Some services providers get all their funds from private donors or local and state governments. But many rely on federal money, the majority of which is issued by the Justice Department through the Violence Against Women Act, which expired at midnight on Dec. 21, and the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA). Southworth says that VOCA provides money for many "front-line" services and advocates — the people who staff shelters and hotlines and work directly with survivors.

"I don't do front-line services," Southworth tells Bustle, "and I was waking up in the middle of the night this week. At 2 in the morning, I'm thinking about, 'How do we get funds out the door?' My job's not at risk, and I'm not sleeping. So I can't imagine what it's like to be a front-line advocate who's making barely over the minimum wage, with a rent payment of my own and kids to feed."

Even if domestic violence survivors have access to providers' services, they still may be affected by the shutdown in other ways.

"We work with clients to help them transition from violence to safety, and sometimes that means signing up for benefits. People can't sign up for certain benefits now with the shutdown," Marianne Winters, the Executive Director of the Massachusetts shelter Safe Passage, says. "We've also talked with immigrant survivors who are being told that their [pending] immigration cases ... are being postponed indefinitely."

Winters points out that many people depend on the government operating smoothly to go about their lives. "For our survivors it's even more crucial because they're in a crisis-oriented transition," she says. She mentions that Safe Passage has had to spend extra money on food for clients this month after a local food bank cut back on its own services due to the shutdown.

The effects of the shutdown vary for shelters around the country. The Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence tells Bustle that the programs in its coalition "should be OK" for the time being. The New York shelter Womankind says that "some residential providers in the state have been commenting on cash flow issues and having to borrow line of credits, which is not cutting it for some anymore," according to word it received from the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Winters says that Safe Passage is having to carefully manage its cash flows, too, because the group has some government reimbursements pending. Several shelters indicated that they're taking preemptive steps to cut back on services and stockpile money in case their funding does run out.

Meanwhile, domestic violence survivors are in as much need as ever. "Survivors are calling hotlines and saying, 'Are you still open? I need help,'" Southworth says. "I don't want any victim in any community afraid to call for help because she doesn't think anybody's going to answer the phone."