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At domestic violence shelters, COVID-19 brings new safety concerns

Woman looking at closed window blinds
While many families are spending more time at home, domestic violence victims may have more difficulty finding the right moment to leave. Those who go to shelters face an additional risk of exposure to COVID-19.

For many people, staying at home has provided some sense of safety during the coronavirus pandemic. But for Michigan residents who live under the threat of domestic violence, staying home during an especially stressful time feels anything but safe.

Shelters that take in victims and their children are trying to protect their guests on multiple levels right now. People fearing abuse at home arrive at shelters where group settings present an increased risk of COVID-19 exposure.

When social distancing isn't an option

The YWCA of Metropolitan Detroit runs the largest domestic violence emergency shelter in the state. It has 67 beds and, at times during the pandemic, has had as many as 71 people staying there, according to president and CEO Emma Peterson.

"We're a dorm-like facility. We have visiting nurses that come visit our program three times a week to check temperatures and to make sure that there is no indication that COVID exists within our program," Peterson tells Michigan Radio's Morning Edition. "We typically clean anywhere from five to seven times a day."

Peterson says they haven't had any clients with elevated temperatures or positive tests for COVID-19.

In West Michigan, Resilience: Advocates for Ending Violence operates Ginny's Place. The shelter in the Holland area typically serves eight to nine families. It has individual rooms for clients, so there are opportunities for social distancing, but there are common spaces, including a kitchen.

"We're going to figure out a way to keep you safe and and healthy at the same time." -Megan Hennessey, Resilience: Advocates for Ending Violence

Program director Megan Hennessey says Ottawa County has only advised the shelter to follow the self-monitoring advice given to all residents. Hennessey says they're not aware of any positive COVID cases at their facility and they try to reassure residents about the situation.

"Please let us know if you are feeling sick because there are other options that it doesn't put you at risk of losing your temporary housing with us," she says. "We're going to figure out a way to keep you safe and and healthy at the same time."

More calls, different calls

According to Hennessey, Resilience: Advocates for Ending Violence has seen a 66% increase in calls about services. She says the organization has raised funds to rent other spaces to serve as shelters because they currently have 25 families in need.

Peterson says the YWCA in Detroit has been getting a lot of calls from larger families lately. But during the pandemic, she has also noticed some potential clients aren't making it to the shelter after calling.

"Sometimes they may not show up. And we attribute it to their abuser being home and they can not leave as they would normally do because everybody is sheltering in place," Peterson says.

As for the people who have come and the employees working with them at the shelter, Peterson says there is not a sense of fear about COVID-19.

"The clients in our shelter, they seem to be at peace right now, as well as our staff," she says. "They really feel honored to serve the population that we serve."

The struggle for control

Hennessey says abusers often want a sense of total control. Unknowns created by the pandemic – health, jobs, finances – upend that feeling, making them more likely to continue their abuse.

"Survivors are incredibly resilient and they often will try to pick the best time to leave, even before COVID," she says. "I hear stories from survivors like, 'I do want to leave them. I just want to get through this pregnancy first.' Or, 'If I can just save up a little bit of money then I'm planning on leaving on such a such a date.' And so, I worry a little bit about the folks who aren't leaving right now, that don't feel like it's a safe world to kind of go out there."

To hear the full interview with Emma Peterson and Megan Hennessy, click the play button at the top of this page.

If you need help: 

YWCA of Metropolitan Detroit Interim House Domestic Violence Shelter: (313) 861-5300

Resilience: Advocates for Ending Violence (West Michigan): (800) 848-5991

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
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