Anne Menard

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Women’s safety advocates called on Congress Wednesday to hike funding for the nation’s domestic violence shelters, which are being forced to scale back services or eliminate them altogether due to the ailing economy.

"During these grim economic times, when shelters are struggling mightily to do more with less and serve a population in great need, maintaining and expanding core state and federal funding for these emergency shelters becomes even more essential," said Anne Menard, director of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence in Harrisburg, Pa.

Menard spoke Wednesday at a news conference marking the release of a study showing the effectiveness of shelters in meeting survivors’ needs, which she and other advocates plan to use in a campaign to lobby lawmakers for more money for shelters.

In addition to meeting with lawmakers in person, advocates plan to make their case for more federal dollars in a March 4 congressional briefing in Washington, D.C.

Their most immediate goal is full funding of the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, a decades-old formula grant that funds basic operating costs at many of the nation’s 2,000-odd domestic violence programs and shelters.

"They use the money to keep the lights on," said Monica McLaughlin, public policy specialist at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C. "It’s the lifeblood . . . of domestic violence programs."

Allocations Fall Short

Congress is currently authorized to spend up to $175 million a year for the program. But the actual allocation of federal dollars is subject to a congressional vote, and lawmakers last year set aside $123 million; over $50 million less than was approved. That was a slight cut from fiscal 2007, when Congress spent $125 million on the program.

Women’s safety advocates also want Congress to fully fund the Violence Against Women Act, a broader anti-violence law originally passed in 1994 that provides some funds for domestic violence shelters but also sets aside money for a wide range of other services relating to sexual and domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.

But with an ailing economy curtailing federal revenues from taxes, and lawmakers focused on economic-stimulus efforts, more money for discretionary social programs that combat domestic violence could be hard to come by.

Anti-domestic violence programs have had trouble winning full funding even in better economic times. Indeed, neither the Family Violence Prevention Services Act nor the Violence Against Women Act have ever received the full amount of authorized funding, McLaughlin said.

President Obama is expected to release his budget later this month. The appropriations season typically begins in late spring and concludes in the fall.

Pushing for Women’s Safety

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, chair of the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues, a bipartisan group of female lawmakers in the House, says she will push for more money for women’s safety this year.

"We know that the Family Violence Prevention Services Act needs adequate funding; their shelters are considered emergency rooms," she said. And the "reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act is up in 2010, and we want to be ready for that, ensuring that it’s a priority."

Fully functioning shelters are needed now more than ever, Schakowsky added.

"When people are under financial stress, when men lose their jobs, and women too, it just increases the stress and the conflict at home," she said in a recent interview. "So we have to be looking long and hard at funding for those kinds of programs."

Yet even as demand for shelter use rises, victims of abuse now have fewer places to turn because governments tend to cut back on social services during recessions.

Although there is no comprehensive study of the effects of the recession on shelters, women’s safety advocates have picked up anecdotal reports that shelters have been forced to scale back services, cut staff or shut their doors completely.

Study Examines Effectiveness

The campaign for more shelter money comes at the same time as a new study showing the effectiveness of shelters in meeting survivors’ needs.

More than 90 percent of those surveyed–almost all of whom were women–said they found shelters "very helpful" or "helpful" in their effort to escape their abusers and rebuild their lives, according to the survey.

Without access to shelters, respondents said they might have lost their homes, their jobs, their children, and even their lives.

Funded by the Department of Health and Human Services, the study was conducted between October 2007 and March 2008 and involved more than 3,000 residents of 215 shelters in eight states across the country.

Most residents surveyed were women between 18 and 34 who had children under 18. More than half were white; 22 percent were African American and 12 percent were Hispanic.

The study showed that shelters meet a range of needs, often helping residents deal with the trauma of abuse and helping them obtain safe housing, legal protections, health care, financial help, protection for their children and job training.

Still, shelters need more money to meet survivors’ needs in areas such as transportation, lack of privacy and expanded time limits on shelter stays.

"There’s clear evidence that shelters are an effective resource and that there are many states where funding is in jeopardy in a variety of ways," said Dr. Eleanor Lyon, a professor at the University of Connecticut and a lead researcher in the study.

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.