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The shutdown has nearly crippled these domestic violence shelters

Tennessee homes have cut programs and taken out loans, fearing they won't receive reimbursements at the end of the month.

by Emma Ockerman
Jan 9 2019, 8:05pm

Rachel Bruning turned to the 22 workers at her domestic violence shelter office in Crossville, Tennessee, on Tuesday and told them their next paycheck will be the last until the government reopens. And, in the meantime, she’ll have figure out which critical services to scrape together for survivors of abuse and sexual violence.

Bruning's budget is running dangerously close to dry, and three weeks into the government shutdown, the Avalon Center for Domestic Violence is discontinuing some of its programs. Bruning, the shelter’s executive director, told VICE News they have decided to halt outreach services in six out of seven counties and stop sending trained advocates to court with victims.

Many workers from the center drive across sprawling, rural counties in central Tennessee to meet with survivors. “We can’t afford the mileage for the actual advocates to get out to those counties,” Bruning said.

So until the government reopens, domestic violence victims served by the center won’t be offered an advocate to support them through their court cases, and won't be offered help filing an order of protection. Avalon’s emergency crisis phone will stay online for now, Bruning said, and they’ll keep housing the 15 survivors they have in a shelter that’s “stuffed to the gills” already. “We’ll have to reevaluate in a couple of weeks to see if we can even sustain that,” she added.

After the meeting Tuesday, some workers had to rush to meet a sexual assault survivor at a nearby hospital.

The partial government shutdown — now in its third week as President Donald Trump pressures Congress for $5.7 billion for his southern border wall — has similarly impacted other domestic violence shelters across the country by temporarily limiting their ability to access money from key Department of Justice programs, such as grants facilitated by the Victims of Crime Act Fund and the Violence Against Women Act. Tennessee’s 33 shelters receive little in the way of state funding, said Kathy Walsh, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, so they wind up running on empty without federal dollars.

“It’s very critical in our state that the shutdown end as quickly as possible, because it’s already beginning to hurt us,” Walsh said.

Read more: The shutdown is turning prison guards into Uber drivers.

And while more than 800,000 federal employees are furloughed or working without pay during the government shutdown, thousands of nonprofit employees that are paid through federal grants are finding themselves in a similarly precarious position. This ultimately will affect some of the nation’s neediest people, who rely on them for urgent help. Many of Avalon's staffers agreed to work without knowing when they’ll receive their next paycheck, according to Bruning.

Tennessee ranks fifth in the nation for homicides among females murdered by intimate partners, behind Arkansas, Nevada, Louisiana and Alaska. Domestic violence shelters in some of those states are reportedly struggling too.

Bruning’s shelter, nestled in a rural town where nearly 30 percent of the approximately 11,500 residents live below the poverty line, receives about 75 percent of its funding from federal dollars, often through reimbursements doled out at the end of the month after the shelters submit their expenses. They’ve been told by state advocates that those reimbursements won’t come until the government opens back up.

“We’re trying to limit the negativity, how powerless we feel, and not transfer that to our clients,” Bruning said. “I have to worry about the clients that we’re serving, but I have employees that also have to feed their families. How are they going to get gas in their car? How are they going to pay for daycare?”

Avalon and other Tennessee shelters also help assist survivors with obtaining a rental home away from their abuser — footing the bill for things like a housing deposit, monthly rent, and utilities until survivors can get back on their feet. One 56-year-old survivor of domestic abuse who has been staying in a Tennessee shelter for three months said she found an apartment, but because of the shutdown, the advocates supporting her were no longer able to guarantee payment to the landlord. Some of the transitional housing programs for domestic abuse survivors are funded through Housing and Urban Development, which is also affected by the government shutdown.

“They told me the funds won’t be available, none of them, until the shutdown is over,” the woman, who requested anonymity due to concerns over her safety, said. “I’m just hoping Trump doesn’t keep the government shut down for months and months, because we’re the kind of people that people don’t really think about, or even imagine.”

The domestic violence survivor said she had the funds to cover a few months' rent at the apartment, which costs $475 a month, and she’s weighing whether to move in and drain her savings, or stay in a shelter indefinitely.

Bruning confirmed Tennessee programs are having difficulty coming up with the money to place anyone new in rental homes, but she’s hoping to continue paying the bills for the 20 survivors they currently have in transitional housing. Donna Kelly, the executive director of the CEASE Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault shelter in Morristown, Tennessee, said she’s taken out loans to help some new survivors get into apartments. Her program receives about 83 percent of its funding through federal programs.

“Our landlords are being very understanding, but that’s only going to last for so long,” Kelly said. “We’re incurring a lot of debt at the moment. We’ve had to borrow funds and beg and plead to keep 100 percent of our activities through the 31st of January.”

Right now, Kelly said, there are 26 survivors staying in her shelters. She vowed they’d be the last to be affected by the government shutdown. Like with Bruning’s program, Kelly would first cut back on services like court advocates, counselors or providers based in east Tennessee’s more remote counties. Survivors currently on a waiting list for transitional housing could also be affected. On Monday, Kelly said, one landlord threatened to re-list an apartment for a domestic abuse victim unless she gave him the $1,000 he was promised. Afraid of digging into their reserves in case the government doesn’t reopen and they need to find a way to keep the lights on in February, she took out a loan.

“These are all vital services, and they’re all in danger of being put on the wayside,” Kelly said.

Are you affected by the government shutdown? We want to hear from you. Email vicenewstips@vice.com.

Cover: A mother and her child sit in a room in a temporary apartment of the Home association in Paris on November 22, 2016. The Home association rents three apartments and a house for temporary relocation for women aged 18 to 30 who are victims of domestic violence or in family breakdown. / AFP PHOTO / GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT (Photo credit should read GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP/Getty Images)