Local leaders look for options as Wilco women’s shelter forced to turn away survivors

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By Christine Bolaños

Hope Alliance has served as a refuge for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in Williamson County for 33 years. As more residents move to the county — one of the fastest growing in the nation — supply is not keeping up with demand when it comes to beds available to survivors at the local shelter.

Also known as the Williamson County Crisis Center, Hope Alliance served about 3,600 individuals last year, including 385 at the emergency shelter. The shelter houses 35 people at a time and staff is forced to turn away about 60 families a month because there are no more beds available.

“Because of that wait list we have a maximum 30-day stay and the average stay is about 23 days,” said Executive Director Patty Conner.

Supply and demand

Staff tries to find alternative shelter through other area crisis centers located in Austin, Marble Falls, Bastrop, Temple and Killeen, but those are often to maximum capacity as well. In the past, at least one Round Rock hotel made rooms available to survivors, but that changed due to a change in ownership and liability concerns.

Hope Alliance assesses each case to determine the survivors in gravest danger, and therefore, in greatest need of temporary shelter. They are given priority when a bed becomes available.

Red flags include a perpetrator who has violated a protective order, a case of physical violence within the last 30 days, a perpetrator with knowledge the survivor is attempting to leave or has left the situation, threats of suicide or murder, strangulation or attempts at strangulation.

“We explore all other options with survivors: Do they have family and friends who can provide a place for them to stay temporarily? Can they afford to get a hotel for a few nights?,” Conner said.

Shelter is a service of last resort.

Survivors often end up couch surfing at a family member’s or friend’s place of residence, sleeping in their car, becoming homeless or returning to the abuser.

“Some will stay in the relationship and some will leave because it gets too violent,” Conner said. “They will choose to sleep in their cars, stay with family or friends — there’s a lot of a sofa surfing, or go to the Salvation Army for help.”

According to Conner, a survivor leaves their abuser seven times, before it becomes a final escape. The most common reason is financial, especially if a survivor has children involved. Fifty percent of the center’s survivors are children.

“When we have the funds to do so we will place families in a hotel for three to four days until we can make space for them or find another place for them,” she said.

To qualify for resources, support and/or shelter, a survivor needs to have a history of family or sexual violence. Conner emphasized that because survivors can only stay at the shelter for a maximum of 30 days it is meant only as temporary refuge and not a space for starting over.

During their stay, survivors work out a safety plan to overcome obstacles, utilize their resources and determine their options.

“Most importantly, how do they stay safe while they figure out what they’re doing to do,” Conner said.

Due to the delicate nature of the cases, the shelter does not track survivors after they leave. It is up to each survivor to stay connected with staff and keep them posted on their progress if they want to do so.

Funding

As the official family violence and sexual assault program for Williamson County, Hope Alliance receives about 60 percent of its funding from the state. The center has about a $2 million budget and the county funds about $6,700 of that amount.

Cities provide funding up to $40,000 to help keep the operation running. Cities that regularly allocate funds to the shelter are Cedar Park, Round Rock, Georgetown, Hutto and Taylor. Hope Alliance also operates satellite offices in Georgetown, Hutto, Taylor, Cedar Park and Liberty Hill. Those offices provide intake and hotline services, as well as crisis intervention and case management services. The shelter itself is located in Round Rock.

Conner said staff applies for grant funding every one to two years, but the amount can decrease or increase depending on the state of the economy, monies available, and other organizations competing for the same support.

She said it is mandated by law that crisis centers be funded per the Victims of Crime Act of 1984 or VOCA.

“It is one of our strategic goals to lesson that dependency because it could be unstable,” Conner said. “We couldn’t do what we do without that money.”

She said there will never be enough government funding to meet the need.

“It requires a comprehensive approach to addressing it,” Conner said. “Our community leaders, our philanthropy leaders, our political leaders, our healthcare leaders and our parents, must take ownership of the issue. We can’t rely on state, federal and local government.”

Partnerships

She said Hope Alliance received a donation of two acres of land in downtown Round Rock that could be used as a site for a new shelter or expansion. But while the land is there, the funding to build a facility is lacking.

She said the center was granted the land at least six years ago and would have room for a facility of up to 75 rooms. Additionally, the current shelter is located in a 40-year-old house, which is in severe need of maintenance and repair. She estimates it would take between $3-5 million to build a new facility.

The crisis center collaborates with a number of agencies that serve their communities including the Williamson-Burnet County Opportunities, Inc., Round Rock Area Serving Center, Hill Country Community Ministries and The Caring Place.

“For meeting the myriad of needs that victims have,” Conner said. “Clothing, help with medication, gas vouchers, household items, utility assistance. All the things that if a survivor had, shelter might not be needed.”

Round Rock-based Survive2Thrive Foundation, which aims to serve the entire Austin area, is working to build a network of hotels that can offer rooms to survivors at reduced rates or for free to help offset demand at local shelters.

The organization, headed by former survivor Courtney Santana, aims to provide life-changing resources to wait-listed survivors and offer continuing support to those looking to leave their local emergency shelter.

According to the foundation’s website, more than 11,000 survivors in Texas alone, will be turned away due to overcrowding and lack of space at their local shelter. This results in 39 percent of Texans seeking emergency shelter being turned away.

Santana said the organization is working with Hope Alliance to create a network that will willingly and openly support survivors of domestic violence.

She said many times hotels do not want to openly advertise that survivors are welcome at their hotels due to liability concerns. However, she points out survivors are already staying at their hotels.

Santana wants to build a network of hotels that are committed to the cause and where survivors will feel safe and welcome.

“One of our advocates would be there so we can quickly move them from a hotel to a more stable living environment,” she said.

Santana envisions going beyond providing alternative temporary shelter to helping survivors build a recovery path for themselves.

Once the foundation is stabilized in central Texas she hopes to expand across the state and the country.

“We’re hoping we’ll garner community support financially as well so survivors can go to a hotel and not worry about cost,” Santana said. “Then they can start the recovery process of getting back on their feet.”

She describes this network of hotels as being “underground” for confidentiality purposes. Currently, there are no hotels that she knows of offering rooms to survivors in Williamson County. Santana hopes to change that. She believes if the networking and collaboration is successful it could result in a breakthrough model for the rest of country.

“The more we talk about it we’ll lesson the blow of domestic violence,” she said. “We’re trying to really end it and be part of the solution.”

Meeting

A group of community leaders organized a meeting for 6 p.m. Thursday, May 19, at Capstone Baptist Church located at Operation Liberty Hill on US Highway 183. Randy O’Dell is one of the organizers and said the gathering will bring business people, politicians and social organizations together to explore possibilities of a new shelter for women and children in Williamson County.

He believes it will take land, money and commitment to pull off such a big endeavor successfully. As the Salvation Army’s volunteer Williamson County Disaster Coordinator, O’Dell oversees a group of about 40 volunteers who run the organization’s portable kitchen canteen.

“We go all over the state in disaster situations,” he said, adding that the Salvation Army just completed a capital campaign of $13 million to build a new shelter in Travis County. He knows, firsthand, the possibilities when entities and individuals work together for a common cause. O’Dell also sits on the board for Operation Liberty Hill. He said the effort serves about 200 families or 800 people a month with food, clothing and other needs.

“There is plenty of need,” he said. “We haven’t noticed that many people who aren’t working that can’t get help, it’s the people who are working that can’t make ends meet.”

Just as there is a need for basic resources there is also a need for shelter for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. O’Dell knows this and wants to do something about it.

“My hope would be that we could bring all those interested parties together and address the situation from a county perspective,” Conner said. “That would result in utilizing Hope Alliance’s knowledge and expertise.”

Whatever comes out of the meeting, Conner hopes it is a unified effort.

“We don’t want to duplicate efforts, we want to strengthen what’s already in place,” she said.

Survivors should not be discouraged. Though shelter space is an issue, Conner does not want to discourage a survivor from reaching out for help. There are resources and support available to each and every one of them. She encourages survivors to call Hope Alliance’s 24-hour hotline at 1-800-460-7233 (SAFE) for immediate assistance.

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