Rural shelters fighting to stay open

In the 16 months since its only long-term victims’ shelter closed, Bedford County tallied its second consecutive record-breaking year for domestic violence and sexual assault aid requests.

For Your Safe Haven Inc., the nonprofit victims’ center that manages the county’s domestic violence services, the record year came at a time of unpredictable funding for similar groups across Pennsylvania, with a small bump in state money doing little to offset a long, gradual decline in federal help and the sudden effects of a government shutdown.

Those money concerns have led other rural victims’ shelters to curtail services and contemplate closure, placing greater pressure on those that remain. And it all comes as a victims’ fund totaling more than $10 billion sits largely unused, experts said.

“We had really cut everything we could,” Your Safe Haven Executive Director Jeannee Mallow said. “We didn’t even have enough staff to operate the shelter.”

The Everett-based Mary Jane Mitchell House closed in June 2012, ending 16 years of service to domestic violence victims and their families. Reportedly the first such house in Pennsylvania to fall victim to recent budget problems, it sparked concerns that others would follow suit.

Shelters in other counties haven’t closed their doors yet, said Peg Dierkers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. But several are considering the option, and local administrators said the state group has pressed for cheaper housing alternatives, like scattered apartments and long-term deals with landlords.

For some local groups, those alternatives are easier said than done, and women and children suffering in abusive relationships have faced waiting lists and traveled long distances to get long-term help. Bedford County families have been directed to surrounding counties when they need extended support, Mallow noted.

“There’s this woven-together web of available resources,” Dierkers said. “When any one of those threads are plucked and not available, things start to come apart.”

Crowded facilities in Philadelphia, for example, have forced women as far afield as Harrisburg. For young children, such a sudden move can be terrifying.

“So what we’re expecting people to do is stay where there’s a roof over their heads. And often, that’s with an abusive person,” she said.

Overcrowding and waiting lists remain a concern at the Blair County emergency shelter operated by Family Services Inc., where administrators have “opened the doors” to Bedford County families left without a safe, long-term home. Others have been directed to shelters in Cambria and Franklin counties.

Nine women and 17 children fill 21 beds at the Blair County shelter, Domestic Violence Team Leader Lacey Ceschini said. Applicants face frighteningly named “lethality assessments” to determine whether the danger is urgent enough to warrant immediate placement, she said.

“We have seen an increase in the number of people being referred to our shelter,” Ceschini said. “Our concern is, how do we bring in the next person who’s in fear for their safety?”

It’s not clear what causes the rising number of requests – Mallow said she’d like to think it’s simply a greater awareness and a willingness to address violence. Whatever the cause, overall funding has remained static and, in some cases, has declined with inflation.

Perhaps most worrying is the sudden cutoff in federal money that accompanied the Oct. 1 government shutdown: With many departments reduced to skeleton crews and some programs halted entirely, the monthly injections sent to the state domestic violence authority stopped with the new fiscal year, Dierkers said.

Gov. Tom Corbett promised to cover the difference, she said, adding to a 5 percent state funding increase this year.

The Pennsylvania government covers 28 percent of domestic violence aid statewide, she said; the federal government covers 33 percent, with local authorities and private groups providing the balance.

Rural shelters and groups – particularly in central Pennsylvania, far removed from the largest cities – are less likely to receive money from charities and foundations, experts noted. In some counties, longtime allies like the United Way have withdrawn assistance, as well.

That leaves the U.S. government as the primary supporter for many local shelters, administering money through programs like VOCA, the 1984 Victims of Crime Act.

The act releases hundreds of millions of dollars to state victims’ authorities every year; they then pass money to county- and city-level groups and shelters. The money is generated by fees paid by those found guilty of federal crimes, said Steve Derene, executive director of the Madison, Wis.-based National Association of VOCA Assistance Administrators.

In recent years, massive federal prosecutions for crimes like corporate price-fixing have added once-unimaginable sums to the victims’ fund, Derene said. But Congress sets an annual cap, currently $730 million, on the amount that can be handed to states.

The cap has let the fund balloon to well over $10 billion.

While the money available has skyrocketed, Derene said, the cap has been raised so slowly that inflation has actually cut money to state victims’ programs by 17 percent since 2000. Because the growing pool of money is tied up in arcane budget loopholes, it’s unclear whether much more will be released soon, he said.

Despite the budget uncertainty, Mallow said Bedford County’s Your Safe Haven has continued to serve record needs with a staff of just a few people. In the past year, it tallied more than 850 domestic violence complaints and 229 sexual assault complaints.

“You just never know from year to year what’s going to be the next problem,” she said.

While Your Safe Haven manages to provide short-term care, staff still hope to re-establish an extended-stay shelter for families suffering under violence.

It would require enough staff for 24-hour observation, Mallow said, and enough funding for the constant, cost-intensive support that extended stays require.

“That’s a dream,” she said. “We’re saying, ‘Never say never.'”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.