In the past four months, Gateway Domestic Violence Center housed nearly double the number of people in the emergency shelter compared to the same time last year. The center has also spent thousands of dollars to put some of these people in hotels for reasons related to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Gateway’s executive director Jessica Butler said the emergency shelter housed 107 people between April and July. In that same period last year, the number of people housed was 57.
The 18-bed emergency shelter was built in 1984 to help women and children leaving an abusive home life. From July 2018 to June 2019, it averaged 20 people per night.
“Some of those we’ve housed in the shelter have also been in a hotel for part of their stay, either because we were full or because we needed to spread people out because of COVID,” Butler said.
In that same four-month span, Gateway paid for 167 hotel nights for those seeking emergency shelter. The center paid for only 26 hotel nights in the same period in 2019.
Most of the reasons for hotel rooms were related to COVID-19, which has resulted in a $12,000 increase in hotel bills compared to last year.
“We might have had room in the shelter for people, but we spread them out into a hotel because we needed to keep them separate for 14 days until we brought them into the facility,” Butler said.
In cases in which a person was potentially exposed to the virus, they were put in a hotel until the negative tests came back, Butler said.
Gateway received $15,000 in grant funding from the North Georgia Community Foundation for COVID-19 expenses. Butler said the grant has covered the $12,000 for hotel rooms, and the remaining funds will also help put families in hotel rooms.
More barriers to leave
Shelter manager Janet Whittaker said she feels the numbers started to peak in June, adding the COVID-19 outbreak has caused an increase in stress and anxiety in the home.
“People are more stressed because they have been laid off. They’re uncertain about what’s going on in their environment,” Whittaker said. “Are they going to get sick? Are they not going to have money to put food on the table? So when that anxiety and stress goes up, there’s more (of a) chance for violence to increase within the home.”
At the same time, the barriers for women to leave an abusive relationship are considerably higher, Whittaker said.
Finding a job and child care are just two of the major concerns for someone thinking about leaving. With people staying at home more, there may be fewer windows of opportunity for someone to reach out to an agency such as Gateway without the abusive partner finding out, Whittaker said.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, Gateway’s 24/7 crisis hotline is 770-536-5860. For legal advocates, call 770-531-7153. More information is available at gatewaydvcenter.org
Gateway typically works with community partners such as school counselors and teachers, who are “wonderful resources for us because they see the trauma in the children,” Whittaker said.
“They haven’t laid eyes on the children and aren’t able to keep track of that and report. Definitely, that is a concern,” Whittaker said.
‘We never closed’
While the numbers for the emergency shelter have increased, Butler and others have noticed the calls for legal help dip.
Between April and July in 2019, Gateway assisted 43 people to get a temporary protective order. This year, there were only 23 people assisted in that timeframe.
“We know domestic violence hasn’t decreased in our community, because we’ve had people reaching out to us for shelter programs,” Butler said.
Gateway’s Director of Legal Advocacy Lanita Harris said she believes it took a while for people to realize the center’s services were still here.
“As an essential matter of the court, we were open the whole time. We never closed, but so much of the courthouse was closed that I imagine a lot of people didn’t realize that we were open,” Harris said.
There also may have been some people afraid to come to the courthouse and other public places because of the coronavirus outbreak, Harris said.