Shelter services face financial pressures
Shelter services have been hard hit by economic times in rural Western Pennsylvania.
Denise Scotland’s organization, the Rural Advocacy Task Force at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Harrisburg, a part of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence with an annual budget of $26 million in 2012, disperses federal and state allocations to the shelters it covers. Most allocations, she said, are based on population and counseling hours at each shelter. In rural areas, this creates a problem.
“Rural areas, they tend to have smaller populations and fewer hours,” she said during a recent telephone interview. “So they tend to get less money.”
Despite the smaller population and fewer hours spent counseling, the overhead and staff costs remain on par with shelters in urban areas, she said.
“It’s hard to maintain separate office space for staff because of the overhead,” she said. “In urban and suburban areas, you can put staff on a bus and they can get to other locations. There are more options as to where to have offices.”
Because of overhead costs, shelters often depend on handouts.
“Rural shelters often have to rely on churches to donate space,” Scotland said. “After a while, churches don’t have the money for heat, lights, electric. It gets expensive. And that makes location options restrictive.”
Lack of donations also poses a problem.
“There are rarely any big foundations or businesses other than Walmart,” she said. “So you can’t tap into foundations or businesses for donations.”
In urban areas, Scotland said, it is commonplace for shelters to organize drives within area businesses – that is, ask for employee donations and ask the business to match it. Or, she said, employees take on buying coats for kids or things for youth staying in the shelter with their mother to take to school for lunch.
“That happens really easily in urban and suburban settings – not so much in rural areas,” she said.
She said the overall income of rural residents is lower than that of those in urban areas, so it is difficult to come by monetary donations in rural areas.
“They’re less likely to give money or items and more likely to try to barter or do services,” Scotland said. “They’ll want to paint a room at the shelter or stuff envelopes.”
And the desire by community residents to do something for the shelter puts shelter staff in a precarious position, she said.
“Because locations are confidential, it’s a double-edged sword,” she said. “If partners drop the volunteers off and then they later become abusive, it’s not a safe location anymore because they know where it is.”
A fully staffed office is an anomaly in manager Lauren Lacey’s office at the Fayette County Domestic Violence Shelter.
“Next week will be the first week we are fully staffed in two years,” she said one week in July. “Volunteer-wise, we only have a few that are dedicated to the Fayette shelter.”
The distance of the shelter from most cities and towns, she said, makes wrangling volunteers difficult. Because the main office is in Washington, a majority of the volunteers are from Washington, and a daily drive to Fayette County – on a voluntary basis – is not something most want to do.
“It’s difficult to find Fayette volunteers,” she said. The Fayette shelter has just six paid staff members, and the shelter must remain running 24/7.
Scotland said some volunteers get discouraged after several shifts at rural shelters.
“Services in rural areas go in fits and starts,” she said. “Someone may sit for four different shifts and the phone may only ring once or twice. They get discouraged easily.”
The number of people using these types of services in urban areas, she said, is higher, and thus there is a higher volume of calls per shift.
“The shelter may be empty for three weeks, then overflowing for the next two weeks,” she said. “There are dry periods with no one coming in, and that’s rarely the case in an urban or suburban setting.”
But having a large number of volunteers also poses its own problems, Scotland said. Too many volunteers increases the risk of one of them seeing somebody they know at the shelter because rural communities are often so close-knit.
“Then a volunteer is drinking wine with some of their friends and it may slip who they saw (at the shelter),” she said. “Or they see (the victim) in a public place, it may slip that they know each other.”
Alexis, a 55-year-old Westmoreland woman who suffered abuse at the hands of her boyfriend in Bucks County in the 1980s, escaped, but it was not without a struggle, she said.
“One of my sisters graciously opened her home to me for a summer,” said Alexis, who did not want her real name used. “Throughout that summer and the next fall, he called constantly, reminding me that we need each other.”
Even after she was married and had a child, she said, he called and suggested “we meet.”
The last call, in the late ’80s, she said, was the final one – more than five years after the relationship ended. National surveys show that it takes women seven tries to successfully leave an abusive relationship.
“Every time I would get away, he would pull me back in and the cycle would repeat itself,” she said.
Her eventual escape was also not without repercussions.
“I hate conflict. Angry voices make my brain go fuzzy, and I almost always feel overwhelmed by guilt during and after,” she said. “As a result, I really struggle with presenting my perspective in a calm, logical, assertive yet kind manner.
“The thoughts are in my head, they just struggle getting out of my mouth,” she said.
Certain male voices give her anxiety. Being unexpectedly touched by a stranger makes her uncomfortable.
It was a struggle, she said, but she considers herself lucky despite the lack of resources and services at her disposal.
“My social service was my sister living in Wisconsin,” she said. “I ran away. I found new relationships. And I forced myself to move on.”
Megan Guza is a graduate student in the master’s program at Point Park University’s School of Communication. This series of articles was prepared in collaboration with the Point Park News Service.