Advocates for abused women want written policy lifting residency rules at shelters
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 11, 2011 - Advocates of services for abused women want St. Louis County to provide a written policy to show it has no residency requirement for people seeking space in the county's only shelter for victims of domestic and sexual violence.
The issue arose earlier this week when members of St. Louis End Violence Against Women Network reported that the county had a residency rule for the Kathy J. Weinman Shelter.
But county officials implied on Thursday that a residency rule never was in place and that Weinman was open to victims from outside the county, provided they have documented cases of domestic violence or are in imminent danger.
Ellen Reed, a long time advocate in the battered women's movement, said the network would raise the issue at Tuesday's meeting of the St. Louis County Council. The network consists of 25 area organizations that provide some form of service to victims of domestic and sexual violence.
"We applaud their willingness to reconsider the standard," she says. "We are going to request that they put the rule in writing through an ordinance or a referendum so that what has happened won't happen again."
What has happened is that some county officials have been fuzzy about whether a residency rule was in place. The network said it had been told by Weinman that the shelter could not accept battered women from the city. The group was upset by that information partly because city and county officials had recently announced they were lifting the residency requirement for getting into their homeless shelters. Network members argued that the new rule governing homeless shelters should apply to shelters for victims of domestic violence because these women also could be considered homeless.
Earlier this week, Andrea Jackson-Jennings, executive director of the St. Louis County Department of Human Services, offered different explanations of what the county's policy was. On Tuesday, she said a resident-only rule was in place in part because county taxpayers picked up the tab for Weinman, and that they might not like covering the cost of beds for residents who didn't live in the county.
In the same conversation, she added that while the county gave preference to county residents, the shelter wouldn't refuse a bed to a battered women from outside the county. But she conceded that the shelter had refused to accommodate city women "who didn't meet the criteria for domestic violence."
The next day, she called to say admission to Weinman was governed not by the policy she had mentioned but by county ordinance.
"The funding source for the shelter was created by an ordinance that requires it to be open only to county residents," she explained. "To open it to others would require changing the ordinance. I wanted to make sure that (people) understand that this (the restriction) wasn't done arbitrarily."
She promised to provide a copy of the ordinance and other documentation. Reed, of the advocacy network, said the ordinance Jackson-Jennings apparently was referring to was the county's tax-supported Children's Fund. Reed said the fund provided 36 percent of the shelter's budget of less than $1 million. In any case, Reed said the shelter should be opened to all women as a matter of policy.
"Domestic violence is complex and dangerous," she said. "For that reason women will move from their immediate area. County taxpayers are sensitive enough to understand why. They understand this from domestic violence fatalities in the St. Louis area. It's common practice in the domestic violence community to accept women who do not live very close to the shelter in order to escape the violence."
She said that was the policy at Women's Safe House and St. Martha's Hall in St. Louis, and at Bridgeway Women's Center in St. Charles. Along with Weinman, these are the four domestic violence shelters in the St. Louis area. Together they have 141 beds. They sheltered nearly 2,000 people in the St. Louis region last year, according to the network.
Advocates of services for abused women want St. Louis County to drop its residency requirement for those seeking space in the county's only shelter for victims of domestic and sexual violence. Members of the St. Louis End Violence Against Women Network (SLEVAWN) are pleased that the county decided to "reconsider" its requirements for the Kathy J. Weinman Shelter. But the advocates want a written statement.
Andrea Jackson-Jennings, executive director of the St. Louis County Department of Human Services, could not be reached on Friday for comment. Ellen Reed, an advocate for battered women, says she is eager to get a written statement from the county that assures battered women throughout the region that they can use the shelter.
The St. Louis region has four shelters for battered women: Weinman, Women's Safe House and St. Martha's Hall in St. Louis, and Bridgeway Women's Center in St. Charles. Together the four have 141 beds. Last year, they offered shelter to nearly 2,000 people in the region, according to the network, a group of 25 area organizations providing services to victims of domestic and sexual violence.
The number served represents a small percentage of victims, many of whom are turned away because beds are full. The network says it is targeting Weinman because the shelter refuses women from outside of St. Louis County even when beds are available. The other three shelters have no such restrictions, the network says.
Who gets served by Weinman is dictated by county law, says Andrea Jackson-Jennings, executive director of the St. Louis County Department of Human Services.
"The funding source for the shelter was created by an ordinance that requires it to be open only to county residents," she says. "To open it to others would require changing the ordinance. I wanted to make sure that (people) understand that this (the restriction) wasn't done arbitrarily."
Earlier, on Tuesday, Jackson-Jennings had said in an interview that the residency rule was in place because county taxpayers covered part of the cost of the shelter, and that they might not like paying for the service for city residents. She added that a city woman who had sought shelter did not meet the requirement for being admitted, which she says requires the victim to being in "imminent danger" of abuse.
But late Wednesday, she called to say the ordinance was the real reason the county could not admit victims from outside of St. Louis County. Then, she called again late Thursday morning to say she could not find the ordinance and said she was "sticking with" her original explanation.
Even so, network members say they will attend next Tuesday's St. Louis County Council session to urge officials to end the restriction.
"We certainly don't have enough emergency space for battered women," says Ellen Reed, a long-time advocate for battered women. "One area shelter tried very recently to get a woman from the city into the Weinman shelter. She was denied (a bed), although the shelter said that it had two bedrooms open."
Reed says the issue is being raised now because of recent reports that the city and county had dropped residency requirements for homeless shelters. She says the policy should also apply to shelters for battered women because the victims also can be defined as homeless.
"That's the crux of the situation," Reed says. "The problem necessitates flexibility because battered women often need to leave their home community to escape abuse. The violence tends to escalate when she leaves. It can be an extremely dangerous time for her."
The potential of a victim being stalked is one reason the shelters' locations are not made public.
"They are trying to escape violent relationships and find a safe place," says Michelle Schiller-Baker, executive director of St. Martha's Hall. "We keep our location confidential so (victims) can't be followed or traced."
She is "disheartened" by the county's policy, saying, "I find it unconscionable that (Weinman) is restricting (some) women who are facing very dangerous situations. If you are a woman who is fleeing for her life and they have space, they should take you in."
The shortage of shelter space for victims isn't unique to the St. Louis region, according to the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, based in Jefferson City. While more than 10,000 victims found shelter beds in Missouri last year, nearly 20,000 more were turned away due to lack of space, the coalition says.
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