24 Jun HAWC to use federal relief funds to house victims of domestic violence
Photo: Elizabeth Conley, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer
Article by Dylan McGuinness for the Houston Chronicle. June 24,2020.
The city plans to use about $647,000 in federal pandemic relief funds to place high-risk victims of domestic violence in hotels, lending much-needed assistance to emergency shelters that remain filled amid a months-long increase in the need for sanctuary.
The money, which city council is expected to consider at its meeting Wednesday, would be given to the Houston Area Women’s Center for its Safe Harbor program, which places victims in hotel rooms when a shelter is not available. The center’s 120-bed shelter is almost always full, and the organization has placed 100 individuals or families in hotels since mid-March. That is at least three times the normal number, according to CEO Emilee Whitehurst.
The funds from the city would allow the organization to have 20 additional hotel rooms a night for the next six months, Whitehurst said. It also includes some money for food, transportation and supplies. “It’s excruciating to see victims choosing between homelessness and violence because they don’t have other options,” Whitehurst told council members Tuesday. With the city funding, fewer people will face that choice, she said.
Even before the pandemic began, emergency shelters were struggling to meet the demand. They had to turn away roughly 8,000 survivors from January to November 2019, the Chronicle reported last year.
The pandemic, and its resulting stay-home orders, appear to have worsened the situation, with calls to the center’s helpline and demand for shelter growing considerably in the last three months.
“We would be deeply appreciative to have the resources to intervene in real time this time,” Whitehurst said.
Wednesday’s vote comes two months after the city used a $50,000 Uber grant last month to launch an awareness campaign about domestic violence. That included the launch of a website, nocovidabuse.org, to give victims another platform to seek help and browse resources.
“The issue is being compounded by the fact that women can’t call for help because they’re in the same house as their abuser,” said Council Member Abbie Kamin, who helped organize that campaign and push for the city funding.
She said the money was needed because the pandemic has had two simultaneous consequences for the women’s center: it has reduced the center’s their housing capacity because of the need for social distancing, and it has sparked an uptick in cases.
“I think everyone recognized the dire need to protect families right now, and this is an important first step for that,” Kamin said.
The money is coming from “Emergency Solutions Grants” doled out by the Federal Housing and Urban Development Department under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. It is a different pot of money from the $404 million the city received under that legislation for pandemic expenses.
The women’s center also received $123,000 from Harris County, some of which is devoted to Safe Harbor. The rest of the funds are being used to divert some of the shelter’s clients to hotels to accommodate social distancing.
Whitehurst said the center will sub-contract some of the city funds to other grass-roots providers. The hope, she said, is to come up with a more uniform intake process that could help keep track of how many people are being helped and how many are turned away.
The center also is planning an expansion to create more rooms at its shelter.
“We will be seeing the toll of this on families and in the kinds of violence it will reap for a long time to come,” Whitehurst said.