Trend of Disbelief

By Holly Otterbein
Aug. 4, 2011

A year and a half ago, Jeannine Lisitski thought her battered women’s shelter had suffered through its worst year ever.

It was the end of 2009, and Lisitski — executive director of Women Against Abuse, Philadelphia’s only overnight shelter for victims of domestic violence, mostly women and children — was reviewing bleak end-of-year statistics. In that year, she found, Women Against Abuse had been forced to turn away 4,671 domestic violence victims, simply because there wasn’t enough room — compared to 2008, when the shelter was forced to turn away 1,705 victims. City Paper reported on the troubling increase at the time.

But, more than a year later, things are even worse. In 2010, CP has found, Women Against Abuse couldn’t provide emergency shelter to 7,474 victims who needed it. By June of this year, it had turned away 3,115 people — an 8 percent increase, year-to-date from 2010.

“To our horror, the numbers are continuing to spiral upward,” says Lisitski.

The outlook wasn’t always so grim. In 2007, the domestic violence shelter doubled its beds, from 50 to 100. At the time, there were plans to acquire an additional 150 beds, which, says Lisitski, would have put Philadelphia’s capacity in line with other cities its size.

But then the great recession hit in 2008, and in the face of huge budget cuts, that reasonable plan suddenly looked more like a pipe dream.

In 2008, the city cut $296,268 from its annual allocation to Women Against Abuse — or 11 percent of its shelter’s entire budget — an amount that was never reinstated. (Women Against Abuse receives about 85 percent of its funding from government sources.) Five years prior, the state cut all funds for domestic violence services in Pennsylvania by 4.7 percent, an amount that was also never restored.

This year, the state cut even more funds with consequences for Women Against Abuse: The Homeless Assistance Program was slashed by 10 percent, and the Human Services Development Fund was reduced by 36 percent. As a result, the city was forced to pick up the slack, absorbing those cuts and spreading them throughout various departments, instead of passing them onto the shelter.

“But we’re struggling to do that,” says Dainette Mintz, director of the city’s Office of Supportive Housing. “It’s devastating. We don’t know what the future of the program is.”

Women Against Abuse didn’t reduce its number of beds, but did reduce staff and services, and was unable to expand as planned. Meanwhile, amid the budget cuts, more domestic violence victims than ever have been asking for shelter at Women Against Abuse — and that, too, may be an indirect result of the bad economy.

A study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice found that domestic violence occurs three times as often in families under serious financial strain, and a National Resource Center on Domestic Violence study reported that 93 percent of domestic violence victims in shelters ask for help with financial problems.

As the need for domestic violence services has skyrocketed, so, too, has another troubling statistic. From 2007 to 2009, the domestic homicide rate rose almost 50 percent in Pennsylvania. In Philadelphia, from 2008 to 2009, it went up by 71 percent, from 21 to 36 homicides. In 2010, according to police statistics, there were 30 domestic homicides in the city.

“We feel as helpless as the client does,” says Meghan Kincade, Women Against Abuse’s director of shelter services, about having to turn victims away in this climate. “When someone is ready to leave their abuser, they’re also at the highest risk for homicide. And we have to turn them down [at that time].”

Nicole Lindemyer, policy manager at Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, says the majority of domestic violence shelters throughout Pennsylvania have had to deny help to increasing numbers of victims in the past few years. Given the program-slashing regime at the helm in Harrisburg, that isn’t likely about to change.

“Current leadership has very little interest in raising fees,” says Lou Takacs, an aide to state Democratic Rep. Chelsa Wagner, who introduced legislation in 2009 that would have increased domestic violence services funds by $2.8 million, but which didn’t pass. “The reality,” he says, “is the reality.”

Philadelphia Supportive Housing chief Mintz is equally blunt about the city’s ability to handle the snowballing rates of domestic violence. “Given the financial situation, there is no possible way to provide increased funding,” says Mintz, adding that in the past year, the city had to turn away 591 families at homeless shelters because if its own lack of beds.

But advocates argue this issue should be handled differently — that it isn’t just another program that can be cut off.

“This is a public-health crisis,” emphasizes Lindemyer. “How many more people need to be murdered until the government recognizes [that]?”