The call to the hotline came in on Holly Kasper-Blank’s phone just before dawn last Wednesday. She remembers because she had been trying to get some extra sleep and the ring awakened her.
A whirlwind of need had descended at the domestic violence organization where she works in Avon, everything from pleas for help and reassurance to new protocols. It had been 14 days since Colorado announced its first confirmed COVID-19 case, and three days since the governor urged residents of and visitors to four of the state’s mountain communities, including Eagle County, to stay home and minimize contact with others.
But in Kasper-Blank’s line of work, especially in these pressure-cooker days, it can be hard to say on which side of the front door the greater danger lies.
The woman on the other end of the line was in a “very unsafe, explosive” relationship, Kasper-Blank said. It had been a rough night, the woman told her. She was scared at home. She was scared at work. She was scared that social distancing will spell the end of her regular paycheck, and then what?
“There were threats happening at home and she wanted to leave and she was talking to a friend about that, and the friend told her it wasn’t a good time, that it isn’t safe,” recalls Kasper-Blank, the chief operating officer for the nonprofit Bright Future Foundation. The friend, Kasper-Blank inferred, did not want to take the woman in for fear of being exposed to the coronavirus.
“So, she was questioning how she was going to move forward. We just talked for about 30 or 40 minutes. I feel right now people just need a hotline to say they are not ready to do much right now because it’s too scary. The word I like to use, and the word I feel describes so often what I hear, is ‘paralyzed.’ They feel paralyzed. We try to help them see a path that they might not be seeing.”
Kasper-Blank and others who work with domestic violence victims know that the pandemic alone — with its calls for greater social isolation — likely will increase the danger to women and children. But the added component of economic collapse is almost certain to do so.
“This is just an incredibly dangerous time for those at risk for domestic violence,” says Sheri Mintz, Bright Future Foundation’s chief executive officer.
“I thought there would be an acute phase where we would be dealing with the crisis, with the quarantine, and then there would be an intermediate phase where people would be losing employment and then the long -term financial impact, but the acute and intermediate phase have collapsed into one and it’s all happening very, very quickly.”
Across the state, nonprofits that serve victims of domestic violence are working overtime, stretching budgets to breaking points to prepare for an anticipated wave of women and children — and nearly all will be women and children — afraid and in danger. Even in the best of times, Colorado does not have enough shelter beds for victims. From 2014 through 2018, the last year for which data is available, an average of about 10,000 requests (not unique individuals) for shelter by domestic violence victims could not be met, according to the state’s Domestic Violence Program’s annual reports and Violence Free Colorado.
“I’m very concerned that we will end up with a lot more individual survivors and survivors with children who will become homeless,” said Amy Miller, executive director of Violence Free Colorado, a statewide coalition of about 115 organizations and individuals such as therapists and survivors who work to provide services to domestic violence victims. “I am worried that homicides will increase. Physical violence will probably escalate and what does that mean also for a health care system already pushed beyond capacity by people affected by COVID-19?
“And what is it like if you need to flee a situation like that now and what if there is no one who can take you in? It’s hard enough to flee. It’s usually a process that takes time. As scary as it is, as dangerous as it is, they will stay. Imagine thinking about having to go out into the world right now or in the near future and trying to find help.”
Miller said she and other members of the coalition are having daily conversations among themselves and with the National Network to End Domestic Violence to figure out strategies and solutions.
In 2018, Colorado nonprofits serving domestic violence survivors reported more than 62,000 crisis calls received and about 4,700 adults and children housed in shelters with about four times more receiving non-residential services, according to the state Department of Human Services’ Domestic Violence Program. The office pools and distributes about $3 million a year to about 45 domestic violence programs statewide.
“We are definitely getting more calls. And more text messages,” says Angela Ceseña, the executive director of Latina SafeHouse in Denver, where the city issued a stay-at-home order Monday. The nonprofit serves mostly refugee and immigrant women, many of whom are undocumented and monolingual Spanish speaking and so easy prey to perpetrators of violence.
“With self-isolation, with financial hardship, with amplified power dynamics, we are getting ready to see a rise in violence,” she says.
Particularly worrying Ceseña is the reported increase in gun sales because with a gun in the home, the probability of abuse escalating to homicide/suicide also increases, she says. The risk actually increases by 500%, Miller says.
If the first message from domestic violence providers is that the always-pressing need for services is going to rise, the second is that help is available. Organizations have their hotlines open. They are reconfiguring shelter space and making motel rooms and other rental assistance available. Where possible, they are turning to tele-counseling and where it is not, phone calls and text messages. Latina Safehouse relies on WhatsApp. They’re emphasizing that all services are free and confidential and legal status does not matter.
Ceseña and others in the field also are reaching out to survivors, families living in transitional housing and past clients who are increasingly vulnerable. Service providers are delivering food and other supplies to people’s doors. In Boulder County, starting three weeks ago, the staff of the Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (SPAN) started calling to check in on the 50 or so families who are either in SPAN-leased transitional housing or to whom the organization has provided rental assistance. Boulder also issued a stay-at-home order, which is effective March 24 through April 10.
“We are very concerned about these families because they live on the edge of poverty anyway and several have lost their jobs and income,” says SPAN’s Executive Director Anne Tapp. “So, they’re in financial distress, they have kids who are off school and they’re trying to keep the kids entertained and they have all this happening at the same time they are trying to put their lives back together.”
The scope and scale of what needs to be done to keep shelter and transitional housing residents safe, not to mention staff members working in shelters with multiple families sharing communal areas, is unprecedented, providers say. It is simply not an option to turn someone away who needs help — even if that person appears sick. Nor, Kasper-Blank says, it is really an option to kick them out because they are not following rules around social distancing or cleanliness, an issue that came up this week in the Bright Future shelter.
“It’s a tough situation,” Miller says. “[Staffs] are afraid of being exposed and at the same time survivors of domestic violence are afraid of making disclosures of symptoms they may have for fear of being denied. At the same time, these organizations are having a hard time getting a hold of sanitation supplies, hand sanitizer, face masks, adequate food, diapers, baby wipes, formula, TP, and paper towels. Some of them already would have had some of this stuff in their supply rooms, but how long will that last? And some things they didn’t already have they didn’t think they needed, things like masks.”
SPAN has a nine-bedroom shelter that can house up to 27 people depending on the size of families. Multiple families share bathrooms, the living areas and the kitchen. Over the last few weeks, as shelter residents have left, Tapp says, the organization has limited capacity to 15 people in an attempt to keep residents safely distanced.
The same kind of preparation has been done in Eagle County’s Bright Future Foundation’s shelter, which can house up to 21 people. The staff has designated a room for quarantine, but is hoping that hotels and motel rooms will become available so the organization can use vouchers to put families up. As of Monday, the staff had located six open rooms.
The organizations’ leaders say they cannot do this work alone and are seeking financial and other help. (See resource links below.) They also stress that with children not going to school and co-workers telecommuting, signs of abuse will likely go unseen. “People need to be looking out as best as they can for their neighbors, for their friends,” Mintz says.
In Boulder County, Tapp echoes that message and puts it this way: “We do know that people come together in the immediate shock after a tragedy. We have examples as a nation of that. But we also know that people can become suspicious and can become targets and marginalized people can become even more marginalized. The stigma and fear around COVID-19 has the potential of turning us against each other — or of turning us toward each other.”