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Shutdown draws domestic violence shelters to the brink, imperiling life-or-death services for women

A woman who sought help after enduring domestic abuse sits in the Eastern Panhandle Empowerment Center on Friday in Martinsburg, W.Va. Federal funding for such women’s shelters has been in jeopardy because of the partial government shutdown. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Weeks after fleeing an abusive relationship, a 49-year-old woman was ready to move out of a shelter and into a trailer with a security deposit provided by a nonprofit organization that relies on federal funding. But the government shutdown scuttled her plans to start a new life.

The Eastern Panhandle Empowerment Center this month cut all extra spending and client expenses to prepare for the Justice Department’s freezing of its regular stream of federal grant money. The center’s ability to help domestic violence victims pay for prescriptions was gone, and home visits to people in rural areas had to be canceled. There could be no more free rides for women to get to new jobs, leading to one woman’s firing.

The shutdown belt-tightening also meant the woman who escaped to here from Baltimore would no longer get help with her trailer’s security deposit, meaning she continues to take a spot at the shelter while more than two dozen women seeking refuge from potentially dangerous situations sit on a waiting list.

“It hurts more than anything,” said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she fears the partner who abused her.

The government shutdown has led organizations that help victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse to cut back on lifesaving services, furlough staff and turn people away from shelters. Many groups are heavily reliant on federal funding that was scheduled to stop being allocated on Friday amid the nearly month-long partial government shutdown.

Advocates said the Justice Department decided hours before the deadline to extend the money until March 1, a temporary reprieve that allows them to restore services and keep staff employed. Justice Department officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Already having come to the brink once during the political stalemate, such organizations across the country are still in flux, fretting that the patchwork solution might not outlast the shutdown. They are trying to save as much money as possible while refining staff furlough plans and talking to victims for the first time about operating budgets.

“The upside is, providers have a little more time to continue to operate and delay implementation of difficult strategies,” said Gloria Aguilera Terry, chief executive of the Texas Council on Family Violence. The downside, she said, is that it “only abates anxiety for another 42 days. That is no way to operate. That is no way to responsibly serve vulnerable people.”

What the shelters experienced in recent days is symbolic of the broader shutdown: uncertainty, fear, contingency planning and an 11th-hour reprieve, at least tentatively. But while many Americans have not yet experienced a direct impact as a result of the government shutdown, at domestic violence shelters, any interruption of funding could cut off services that keep female victims and their children safe from potentially fatal violence. Experts say shelters can provide escape at perilous moments; having to turn people away can be a matter of life and death.

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“At its soul, the purpose of our organization is to prevent people from being killed, and without the funding, that mission is topsy-turvy. It’s just so unsure,” said Katie Spriggs, director of the Eastern Panhandle Empowerment Center. “We’re being held captive by the government shutdown because we don’t know when it’s going to end.”

The woman from Baltimore said that since the cuts started nearly two weeks ago, women at the shelter have been scrounging for meals from the pantry, which went without milk for a few days. The youngest children are between the ages of 2 and 4, and the shelter ran out of all but the smallest diapers; mothers pinned towels to their children as makeshift alternatives.

The woman used what little money she has to buy a container of Folgers coffee that the adults could use while stuck inside with children during a recent snowstorm. She blames all in government, believing that President Trump and the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives are “two ends of the same bird” who are playing a “game.”

“It’s not affecting them,” she said. “They’re not eating ramen noodles tonight. They’re not putting kids to bed with a towel under them” because there are no diapers.

The extension has allowed Spriggs and her staff to restore some services. They are still not helping clients with their first month of rent and security deposits, hoping to save money should grants expire March 1. The organization, which serves three counties, receives about $550,000 in federal grants each year, the bulk of it from the Justice Department. It also is embarking on a capital campaign to build a new shelter. Last year, it turned away nearly as many people as it housed because of a lack of space; the shelter houses male and female victims. The community has made contributions during the shutdown, Spriggs said, but she fears that shutdown-induced donor fatigue will affect the capital campaign and hurt the organization in the future.

She said staffers have spoken with clients about the shelter’s financial picture for the first time while assuring victims that the doors will remain open.

“They all feel like their personal safety and ability to live is reliant on our services, and if they’re not there, they could be killed or seriously hurt,” Spriggs said.

Leigh Ann Fry, president and CEO of Bay Area Turning Point in Webster, Tex., said her staff was in tears last week when she told them of possible furloughs because of the shutdown. Fry said employees, some of whom are single mothers, immediately realized they might not be able to feed their families. It then dawned on them that furloughs would mean cutting back services to victims: The staff could not fathom telling people that they could no longer provide help.

The extension of the grants makes it feel as though a huge burden has been lifted, at least for the time being, she said.

“I think people don’t realize that family violence can be so impacted,” Fry said. “They’re thinking Coast Guard, postal workers. People don’t realize agencies like ours who literally save lives on a daily basis are impacted by this shutdown.”

Victim-service organizations in some states, including Florida and Tennessee, are more reliant on federal funds than others. In Morristown, Tenn., Donna Kelly spent the week preparing to lay off half of her staff on Monday and planned to train volunteers to step in. Her organization, Cease, serves six counties in northeastern Tennessee and was planning to cut back services in the most rural areas.

The layoffs are no longer planned, Kelly said, but 80 percent of the organization’s funding comes from federal grants, and she can’t rely on receiving that funding as the shutdown continues. Cease has been able to access smaller grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development electronically during the shutdown.

Other organizations have been unable to access HUD funding to subsidize transitional housing costs. They cannot get into HUD’s computer system, and staffers who could assist are furloughed. The agency said it is working on a solution.

Advocates say they worry that people who are in danger might not seek out services because they think the shutdown has caused cutbacks. They implored those who seek help to turn to the shelters and nonprofit organizations in any case because they almost certainly will try to help.

“We do not want any survivors to think that they do not have resources available to them and they should not seek out help if they need it,” said Chase Tarrier, public policy coordinator at End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin. He said the organizations most affected by the shutdown serve Native American women and refu­gees because programs specifically targeting those groups are funded almost exclusively with federal grants.

Cindy Southworth, executive vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, said that the organization is “hugely relieved” that money continues to flow, but that it cannot rest because March 1 is weeks away.

She wants the shutdown to end and Congress to permanently fund organizations that help victims: “We really need solid funding so that we can all go back to doing lifesaving work.”

Lisa Rein in Washington contributed to this report.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at 800-799-7233.