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Need outstrips space at area domestic violence shelters

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 31, 2011 - St. Louis area domestic violence shelters are facing a crisis of demand. For every woman able to stay safely at a St. Louis area shelter in 2010, three were turned away because the shelters were full.

"It's a huge issue," said Erin Ercoline, executive director of ALIVE (Alternatives to Living in Violent Environments), which provides temporary hotel placement for adults and children when St. Louis area shelter beds are full.

A total of 874 women, 1,033 children and two men seeking to escape abuse were taken in at St. Louis area shelters in 2010, according to figures compiled by the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. A total of 5,866 were turned away, including 2,835 women and 3,031 children.

"In terms of bed space, St. Louis is the lowest per capita in the state," Ercoline said.

The St. Louis area had 141 bed spaces in 2010, according to the coalition. The Kansas City area, by comparison, had 268 beds.

Ercoline says a lack of money is chiefly to blame for the disparity.

"It's been challenging the last few years with the economy being what it is and dollars shrinking or disappearing all together from grant money, government contracts and donation dollars. We just haven't been able to expand the way we've needed to."

And the need is growing. As the economy has turned down, Ercoline says the number of women and children seeking shelter has increased dramatically.

ALIVE provided 4,100 bed nights during its recently ended 2010-2011 fiscal year -- more than double what the agency provided two years ago.

In addition to economic stressors, Ercoline says public awareness is also increasing the demand for shelter space.

"People are much more open about what used to be this dirty little secret," Ercoline said. "Everybody knows somebody who has had relationship violence. The level of awareness has certainly improved, but we're certainly not where we need to be in terms of getting the support that we need to have the impact that we need to."

Outreach Vs. Bed Space

Even as shelters struggle to provide sanctuary to all who need it, more needs to be done to reach out to women in abusive relationships before they turn deadly, says Ellen Reed, executive director of Lydia's House and chair of the media committee for the St. Louis End Violence Against Women Network.

Lydia's House provides up to two years of transitional housing for battered women and their children to help them rebuild their lives after leaving a shelter. The agency maintains 36 apartments in the St. Louis area and provides services to about 45 women and about 60 children a year.

"There are some wonderful directions we could go," Reed said. "There are model programs in other areas. It's a matter of resources."

Kansas City provides one such model.

Police in the Kansas City metro area piloted use of a domestic violence lethality assessment program over a 13-month period in 2009-2010, resulting in a dramatic increase in women seeking help.

The program was initially developed in Maryland and based on research at Johns Hopkins University. It uses an 11-question checklist to help police predict the likelihood that a victim will be killed or seriously injured by her abuser.

A victim is considered at high risk if she answers "yes" to certain questions, including whether there is a weapon in the house or whether the suspect has ever pulled her hair.

Officers who determine a victim is at risk immediately tell the victim they are worried for her safety, contact a domestic violence counselor by phone and encourage the victim to get on the phone to talk.

Sarah North of the Rose Brooks Center, a comprehensive domestic violence agency in Kansas City that provides prevention programming, crisis intervention and other support services, says area officials have seen a dramatic increase in demand for shelter services since starting the program.

"It's helping us reach thousands of victims in the Kansas City area that we probably would not have been able to reach," North said. "Instead of just passing the victim a card with a phone number on it, the officer dials it and the phone is handed to the victim. It really is a testament to how much good we can do when we partner with other services."

According to figures compiled by the coalition, Kansas City metro area shelters took in 2,486 individuals seeking shelter in 2010 and turned away 9,805 due to lack of bed space.

Rose Brooks launched an emergency expansion initiative last year to respond to the increased demand.

Reed would like to see a similar program implemented in the St. Louis area, where a combined 11 domestic violence related homicides and two suicides were reported in St. Louis city and county last year, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol's Uniform Crime Reporting statistics.

Four domestic violence homicides have been reported in the city this year.

Only one domestic violence related homicide has been reported in Kansas City this year, down from six in 2010 and eight in 2008, the year prior to the assessment program.

"We've got to all work together," Reed said. "The first thing is to keep people safe. They can't even hear the message if they're not safe."

A Focused Response

Lt. John Harper of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department's domestic violence unit says police are studying lethality assessment as another means of addressing domestic violence.

The department already places a significant emphasis on domestic violence investigations.

Of the 2,280 domestic violence complaints city police handled last year, Harper says, 811 were referred to the department's Domestic Abuse Response Team, a team of nine detectives and a sergeant supervisor who specialize in felony domestic violence complaints and cases in which repeated misdemeanor assaults have been reported.

DART detectives work closely with several area advocacy and support services. Advocates from Legal Advocates for Abused Women work directly with detectives from offices in police headquarters under the Domestic Violence Intervention Partnership, a program sponsored by the St. Louis Family Violence Council.

The Victim Services Unit of the St. Louis Circuit Attorney's office also assists the needs of victims and families in cases that move forward through the courts.

Harper says officers responding to a complaint provide victims with a resource pamphlet that includes information on victim rights, orders of protection and other information for victims of domestic violence. Included on the pamphlet is a place for responding officers to place their name and contact number so that victims can call them later.

When available, Harper says, advocates respond with detectives to the scene of a complaint to provide immediate intervention.

"Our focus is to try to identify what the problem is and stop the aggression," Harper said. "We're studying lethality assessment right now to make the most effective response that we can."

But Harper says getting victims to a place where they can be safe remains a primary concern.

"We know there are not adequate beds at community shelters," Harper said. "I think that's a community problem. We know that there are women who are turned away from shelters and it's agonizing trying to get them in a safe place."

'The Unmet Need is Staggering'

Of the 2,835 women turned away from shelter in 2010, Reed says some represent women who attempted to seek safety at more than one shelter.

While that means the women may be counted more than once, Reed said: "We know based on what we're seeing that the unmet need is staggering. All of us rely on local giving and government giving. We would do more if we could. The funding mechanisms are in place. It's just not enough."

When the shelters are full, Reed says, battered women have few alternatives.

"Some call more than one program trying to get in," Reed she said. "Some couch surf for a while, and some stay where they are. Those are the ones we really worry about.

"When you look at the numbers, any one of them could become a fatality," Reed said. "The safest place in the world should be your home environment, and it is the most dangerous for many, many families in our area."

Domestic Violence Shelters

St. Louis

Fortress Outreach (north city): (314) 381-4422

St. Martha's Hall (central city): 314-533-1313

Women's Safe House (south city): 314-772-4535

St. Louis County

Kathy J. Weinman Center: 314-423-1117

St. Charles County

The Women's Center: 636-946-6854

Jefferson County

A Safe Place (COMTREA): 877-266-8732 or 877- COMTREA


Oasis Women's Center (Alton): 618-465-1978

Violence Prevention Center (Belleville or Granite City): 618-235-0892 or 800-924-0096

Phoenix Crisis Center: 618-451-1008 or 618-451-1118

Second Chance (East St. Louis): 618-482-5662

Resources for Victims

Some of the resources available in the St. Louis area:

Alternatives to Living in Violent Environments (ALIVE): Counseling, emergency sanctuary, safety planning, (314) 993-2777

Barnes-Jewish Hospital's AWARE Program: Advocacy services, information and resources, (314) 362-9273

Legal Advocates for Abused Women (LAAW): Advocacy, legal advocacy and representation, assistance with protection orders and referrals, (314) 535-5229 or 1-800-527-1460

Life Sources Consultants, Inc.: Advocacy, crisis intervention, counseling, support and information, (314) 524-0686

Safe Connections: Advocacy, crisis intervention, counseling, education and referrals, (314) 531-2003

The National Domestic Violence Hotline: Area resource connections, 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)

Tim Rowden is a freelance writer in St. Louis.