Finding safe place to live a big hurdle when victim decides to leave violent relationship
July 18, 2017
By Amanda Burke, Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise
Second in a series of occasional stories on the impact of domestic violence in North Central Massachusetts.
LEOMINSTER -- A woman walked into the Spanish American center last month seeking freedom from her live-in boyfriend, who was also her abuser.
With the help of counselors she hit the phones, called around to area shelters and lobbied for a bed away from the threat of physical violence. She carried a small notebook, into which she'd jot down names of each housing official, each advocate and each social services liaison she spoke to.
By the end of the week the notebook was full, but the woman still didn't have a safe place to live.
"Those are the cases, those are the situation that break your heart," said Neddy Latimer, executive director of the Spanish American Center, Thursday at the center alongside her two domestic-violence counselors, Wanda Ruiz and Maria Alicea.
Latimer said for want of safe and affordable housing far from the reach of abusers, she's helped relocate women as far away as Puerto Rico.
"How many times we have sat down between the three of us and cried because of the situation," said Latimer. "Here are families that have been here for so long, their children going to school, then they just have to leave."
Advocates in the Twin Cities say more people are coming forward for help accessing safe housing, the job market and navigating the legal system as they try to escape situations of domestic abuse.
"It's greater and greater for each of the programs that we offer here," said Latimer, whose organization also provides child care, free meals and a slate of other community outreach programs. "In terms of people in need, it's getting bigger and bigger every year."
In Leominster, 383 protective orders were filed citing domestic abuse in 2015. The following year, that number jumped to 558.
Many survivors, said Amarely Gutierrez Oliver, director of YWCA Central Massachusetts domestic violence programs, avoid the legal system, so the snapshot represents only part of the picture.
When a person walks through the door of advocacy organizations like the YWCA and Spanish American Center, two primary local organizations working directly with domestic abuse survivors, it sets off a chain of events, starting with finding a temporary place to stay while a network of advocates start developing a safety plan.
Many survivors prefer to stay with friends and family until they find an apartment, making shelters a last resort in emergency situations, said Oliver,
Still, demand for beds at YWCA's two regional shelters always outpaces supply. From month to month, Oliver said at lease 50 people who request a bed aren't able to get one.
"We're always full, there's only enough time to turn a room before a new family or individual is welcomed," said Oliver.
Last month, the shelter didn't have room for 120 people, many of whom were ultimately were taken in by family, friends, or one of the very small number of hotels willing to contract with local advocacy organizations to house survivors.
As Leominster police's civilian domestic abuse advocate for the past five years, Lesly Borges manages each case reported to the department. She spends each day listening to survivors and coordinating services with City Hall, shelters and area advocacy organizations.
Domestic abuse, she said, is becoming more common in Leominster. She suspects the uptick could be tied into the tough economy.
"The economical situation is getting worse for a lot of people, and housing is one of the issues," she said, adding that when a survivor does leave a relationship the person often has to find a new apartment, which she said can be difficult for a single wage earner in Worcester County, where just 41 units of "extremely low income" housing exist for every 100 families who qualify, according to the National Low Income Housing Commission.
The public's awareness of the services available through organizations like the YWCA and Spanish American Center is also increasing demand, said Alicea.
"Today the word of this is an agency that can assist you with your situation is more out there, she said. "The awareness of the agencies who are providing services is more now."
The compromise state budget agreed on by house and senate lawmakers shows funding for domestic violence and sexual assault treatment and prevention services in fiscal 2018 would stay nearly flat over last year despite the rising need seen in communities across the state, said Jane Doe Inc. spokesperson Toni Troop.
"Local programs have identified a tremendous need that is not going to be covered by state funding," said Troop.