The woman on the phone was stuck, refusing to leave her house.
She had already escaped her violent partner who would strangle and emotionally abuse her. She had finally managed to find a new place after receiving a Section 8 housing voucher. But the man had found her again. He had begun showing up at her new home in their small community, stalking her and threatening to shoot her.
She reached out to the housing authorities and requested to transfer her voucher somewhere else, where he wouldn’t be able to find her. But because of the government shutdown, she was told, her transfer request wouldn’t be processed.
Terrified and alone earlier this week, the woman had called the National Domestic Violence hotline, where Amber Mitchell, a 27-year-old phone service advocate, did her best to talk her through the situation.
“You’re strong, you’re capable,” Mitchell told her, suggesting shelters outside of the surrounding area. “You can do this.”
As the longest-ever government shutdown drags on, calls like this one have been pouring into domestic violence hotlines across the country. Callers described abusive situations becoming increasingly worse amid the financial strain of missed paychecks due to the government shutdown. Uncertainty over benefits like food stamps and housing vouchers have led some domestic violence victims to stay — or return to — dangerous situations out of desperation for financial security.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline has seen a spike in calls and messages this month, adding to already higher volumes of callers amid the #MeToo movement and high-profile news stories about cases of sexual assault and domestic violence.
The national hotline received an average of 1,679 contacts daily between Jan. 1 and Jan. 17, up more than 50 percent from an average of about 1,105 daily contacts in the same period last year and up about seven percent from the daily average of 1,571 contacts over all of last year.
Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, said it’s impossible to know how much of the increase in calls is associated with the government shutdown. But she and other advocates at the hotline said they have seen an emerging trend in stories related to the shutdown’s ripple effects.
Experts say one of the main reasons domestic violence victims stay in abusive situations is for financial security. Abusers can use finances to control and manipulate their partner and limit their ability to leave the home.
A wave of similar stories emerged during the financial recession, Ray-Jones said. Amid the financial crisis of 2008, the National Domestic Violence Hotline found that calls to the hotline were up significantly. Among victims who called the hotline during a period of six weeks, more than half reported a change in their household’s financial situation in the past year.
“While there wasn’t new victimization, it was more frequent and intense,” Ray-Jones said.
A 2016 study in the journal Demography found that unemployment and economic hardship in the home were positively linked to abusive behavior, and sharp spikes in the unemployment rate increased men’s controlling behavior toward their partners.
Much of the anxiety from callers in the past month has revolved around the uncertainty that domestic violence shelters and services would have the necessary funding to stay open. Earlier this month, many organizations focused on victims of domestic violence were forced to cut back on services and turn people away from shelters as they expected to run out of federal funding at the end of last week.
In an eleventh hour temporary reprieve, the Justice Department extended funding until March 1. But at the local level, advocates say victims remain worried that they’ll be turned away from shelters. Some organizations have continued to limit services, such as transportation to and from shelters, in case their federal grants are cut off on March 1.
Domestic violence shelters in the Washington, D.C., area said there has not yet been a notable increase in intakes and calls related to the shutdown, but some anticipate an increase in the coming weeks if the shutdown continues.
“We are bracing ourselves,” said Sandra Jackson, executive director of House of Ruth, an organization in D.C. that helps women and children who are homeless or experiencing abuse. “We are already on high alert that this is going to increase.”
A growing number of women in counseling sessions at House of Ruth have described intense anxiety around access to benefits such as food stamps, Jackson said. Elizabeth Horrigan, the shelter program manager at My Sister’s Place, a domestic violence shelter in D.C., said over the last two weeks the shutdown has created “a general buzz” among the women at the shelter. One woman went out and bought $300 worth of food because she was afraid she might lose access to SNAP benefits.
While the Trump administration pledged that food stamps will be available through February, officials could not promise those benefits would continue if the shutdown lasts until March. And for a victim deciding whether to leave or stay a relationship, that doubt could be the tipping point.
“We’re already working with women who are surviving and escaping violence. Now this is another layer of stress,” Horrigan said. “At a time when they most need it in their life, the safety net might not be there for them.”
Kristin Vamenta, a 30-year-old senior hotline crisis coordinator with Virginia’s statewide domestic violence hotline, answered a phone call recently from a woman who had already left an abusive situation but was at the point of returning out of fear that she might lose her SNAP benefits. The woman had been unable to qualify for an emergency shelter, and was staying with a friend temporarily.
“Maybe I would have been better off had I not left, because I would at least know what to expect,” the woman said, Vamenta recounted. “I would have some stability, even though I know it’s not what I deserve and it’s not healthy, and could escalate at any moment to be dangerous.”
Another woman who reached out to the national hotline said she felt her only option was to allow her abusive partner to continue to live in her apartment because she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to feed her children in the absence of food stamps, said Peggy Whilde, a digital services manager at the national hotline.
The woman was on disability and could not work, Whilde said, and her partner financially abused her by controlling when she could leave the house and where she could go.
“These are the most vulnerable people who have the least power,” Whilde said. “Their partners are systemically taking away their power day by day so the addition of the economic disadvantage puts them in a really life-threatening, precarious position.”
In another case, a male victim said he was furloughed due to the government shutdown. His inability to earn money was causing his wife to become increasingly emotionally abusive and controlling. Another woman called the hotline saying her partner was working without pay, and the stress of the shutdown was worsening to his substance abuse, causing him to be increasingly physically violent toward her.
Whilde said she wished politicians in Washington would realize that “this is not trivial.”
“These are people whose lives are at risk,” Whilde said. “This can put them in the position of not being able to make it.”