Need grows for domestic violence shelter, but funding is stagnant

By Genevieve Bookwalter

The lone shelter for domestic violence victims in one of the state’s poorest counties has turned away a growing number of mothers and children over the past three years, reflecting a state and national trend as demand for services grows but funding becomes harder to find.

“It seems pretty obvious to us pretty recently that things were growing,” said Justin Red, spokesman for Marjaree Mason Center in Fresno. In 2008-09, the center turned away 63 adults and 68 kids; in 2009-10 workers turned away 76 adults and 98 children; and in 2010-11 they turned away 86 adults and 105 children.

The center never turns someone away without giving that person another place to go, like a hotel or a shelter in another county, Red said. But the 100-bed center keeps a regular waiting list.

Fresno County is no stranger domestic violence problems. According to the California Department of Justice, Fresno County reported the fourth-highest number of domestic violence calls in all California counties in 2009, the most recent figures available. Per capita, nearly 1 in 100 Fresno residents reported domestic violence, with 8,205 calls for help.

Red said his center does a large amount of outreach, so some calls could come because more women know services are available. But Fresno has nearly 250,000 residents, or 26.8 percent, living in poverty and 15.7 percent unemployment, according to federal and state figures. The correlation between high poverty and unemployment rates and a large number of domestic violence calls is impossible to ignore, Red said.

“I absolutely think it is related,” Red said.

Statistics show a similar trend across California.

Statewide, 16.3 percent of California residents lived in poverty in 2010, up from 15.3 percent the year before, according to the U.S. Census. The state’s unemployment rate in November was 11.3 percent.

According to Camille Hayes, spokeswoman with the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, 84 percent of the state’s domestic violence shelters reported an increased demand for services in 2010. Meanwhile, 88 percent reported a drop in funding.

The California Partnership to End Domestic Violence advocates on behalf of domestic violence shelters and service providers around the state.

“In a recession, individual donations dry up and foundation money is harder to come by,” Hayes said. “The economic outlook in California is very grave, and this has had an impact on domestic violence service providers.”

Meanwhile Hayes said her group is keeping a close eye on the state’s budget, which in Gov. Jerry Brown’s latest revision still contained $20.6 million for domestic violence shelter funding.

That’s an improvement over 2009, when then-Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed $20.4 million in state money for the shelters. The money wasn’t restored until late 2010.

Many groups depend on that government money to carry on; for example, state and federal funds last year made up more than $1.4 million of the Marjaree Mason Center’s $3.3 million budget, according to the group’s federal tax statement.

Cindy Southworth, vice president with the National Network to End Domestic Violence in Washington D.C., said she is watching trends similar to California’s play out across the country.

Problems can grow as abusers take out their economic frustrations on partners or family, Southworth said. In addition, if an abuser loses his job and is home during the day, the victim loses what might have been a safe time by herself.

“A good economy doesn’t end abuse and a bad economy won’t cause domestic violence to occur in a healthy relationship,” Southworth said. “However, a bad economy flames existing abuse and increases demand for services at the very time that shelters and programs are struggling to stay alive in the midst of extreme budget cuts.”

Red said the Marjaree Mason Center is tapping individual donors and foundations and has continued offering the services many women depend on. The center should open a new shelter in Clovis this year, largely through community contributions. However, he said, raising money remains a worry.

“As far as concerns for our agency, funding is our top concern. Always,” Red said.

Last year the shelter provided 900 clients with a place to sleep and served a total of 4,500 people, Red said. Services included counseling, legal assistance and support groups, among others. That’s up from 3,900 clients served the year before, but similar to about 4,500 clients served three years ago, he said.

The nation’s ongoing economic woes have former Marjaree Mason clients concerned for women following in their footsteps.

Darlene Montoya, 53, of Reedley lived with her son in a Marjaree Mason Center shelter from November 2005 to January 2007, she said. During that time she returned to school and earned an Associate of Science degree at Reedley College. She now works as an administrative assistant with the Greater Reedley Chamber of Commerce.

Montoya said she fears that proposed cuts to government social services — like subsidized housing and day care for the poor — will hurt not only women making their immediate escape from an abusive relationship, but those who have left and are learning skills to create a new life.

“It’s going to make it harder for the women to get back on their feet,” Montoya said. “If you have no day care, how do you go to work? If you don’t have the housing, where are you going to live?”

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