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Commentary: Community support crucial to plans to build housing for abused women

POSTED: February 12, 2012 12:30 a.m.

Jessica Murphy Butler

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I've got some good news and some bad news.

I guess I'll go ahead and start with the bad news. One in four women in Hall County will experience domestic violence. Domestic violence thrives in secrecy and silence. It is a problem that affects families throughout our community from all walks of life. Odds are, whether you realize it or not, you probably know someone who has been impacted by abuse at home.

Gateway Domestic Violence Center provides housing and support for domestic violence survivors in Hall County, and there has been a meteoric rise in the need for domestic violence services over the last few years.

In our work, we talk a lot about bed nights of shelter. A bed night is the number of times our shelter beds are used by women and children who are fleeing abuse at home. Over the past few years, that number has gone from 4,214 to 8,166 nights of shelter provided per year.

Gateway's Board of Directors has prioritized addressing the needs of abuse survivors in our community through its strategic planning process. In fact, these plans have been in the works for quite a while now.

As promised, here's the good news. Gateway is working with like-minded organizations and generous individuals throughout the community to meet these needs. So, in reality, this is not just Gateway's project. It is a communitywide initiative like none other. We're calling it "The Power of We."

Gateway first joined forces with the Hope Foundation of the Gainesville Kiwanis Club. The Hope Foundation owns a piece of property they planned to use to build housing for homeless families with young children in Hall County. That land was pledged to build transitional housing for families moving out of Gateway's shelter.

We define transitional housing as a place where women and children can live rent-free for about six months. During this time, mothers are securing employment and saving up money for rent deposits and other expenses, all the while living in a safe home that is free of violence.

People often say to me that they don't understand why domestic violence victims don't "just leave." Every victim has different reasons, but some of the reasons I hear most often have to do with finances. Most victims of domestic violence have experienced what we call "financial abuse." They have not had a say in finances, they have not had access to the family's resources, or they have been prevented from working. For these women, getting a job is more difficult than it is for other job seekers with a consistent work history.

Gateway currently has three transitional apartments, and that isn't enough. One of the hardest things we as a staff ever has to do is decide who will get the next apartment. This is such a life-changing resource. These units stay full 365 days a year. Sometimes, as one family is ready to move in, they are helping the previous family move out.

After the Hope Foundation of the Kiwanis Club pledged its support, other partners soon followed. Habitat for Humanity has pledged its partnership to build this housing. As an agency that is committed to providing decent housing to people who need it, this project also aligned with Habitat's mission.

Even though we have substantial in-kind support for this project, there is still some work to be done to raise the funds needed to complete this project. Our goal is to raise $1 million (cash and in-kind) by the end of this year. This is what we believe it will cost us to build, furnish and endow this housing.

Here's the really good news. So far, the total value of the cash and in-kind gifts we've received to date is just over $465,000.

The donations we've received also include cash gifts from individuals and organizations. In addition to 100 percent participation from our board of directors, Gateway has received substantial support from the Junior League of Gainesville-Hall County and the women's ministry of First Baptist Church. A year ago, Gateway was awarded the Junior League's Signature Grant to assist with this project. And in the fall First Baptist Church held its Hearts and Hands Emporium to benefit this project.

And the best news of all is that when these units are complete, 12 families will benefit from this life-changing resource each year. I'll note that not all of the women who seek support at Gateway are needy. Families with resources often come to Gateway because we are experts in providing support to victims of abuse. But these apartments will be specifically for families that are living in poverty.

When these units are finished, children will come home from school to homes that are safe and predictable and mothers will be given the time to find employment and save money to get their own homes. This is a really big deal for victims without resources like jobs, shelter, and transportation.

So, this is the "Power of We." Our community is coming together to build life-changing housing for people who need it. Will you join us? Right now we need help raising awareness about this project. Maybe your civic group or business would like to have a guest speaker come and tell you more about Gateway or this project. Maybe a group to which you belong would like to become a "we" partner. Or maybe you would like to make a personal donation to this project.

Jessica Murphy Butler is executive director of the Gateway Domestic Violence Center in Gainesville.


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