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Florida’s domestic violence shelters take stock as they face backlog and rebuilding challenges

Refuge House just got a federal grant to develop more transitional housing, which will help ease the backlog of victims needing services
Refuge House just got a federal grant to develop more transitional housing, which will help ease the backlog of victims needing services

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. It’s a time when most advocates take stock. And in Florida, shelters for survivors have rarely been so full – leaving many victims with little choice but to stay with their abusers.

The problem is driven by the ongoing housing crisis and compounded by Hurricane Idalia. It’s especially concerning in Taylor County, where the storm landed, and many residents are now facing major job loss as the local paper mill prepares to close.

“And this year, the real story is just an unprecedented, record-breaking demand for emergency shelter that I’ve never seen before, and I don’t think Refuge House historically has ever seen before.

Emily Mitchem is executive director of Refuge House, which serves counties in the Big Bend. She says even if the victims get away, the lack of stable housing options can put them at risk yet again – especially if they have children.

“Maybe they’ve gotten away from their abuser, and they’re two or three months down the road from that,” Mitchem said. “But being in a position where they can’t access safe, affordable housing puts them vulnerable to further victimization. It makes them an easy target for the next abuser that’s coming along. It makes them have to make tough choices about where they stay and where their kids stay – and it could be with people who are also exploitive and abusive.”

Refuge House is working to develop more transitional housing, which will help ease the backlog and enable survivors to stabilize, get jobs, and if need be, vocational training.

“We just got awarded some federal money that’s going to enable us to pay for housing vouchers for nine months to a year,” she said. “That award – we just got it two days ago. So, it’s brand new, hot off the press. And we’re real excited about that, because it’s going to open up more space in the emergency shelter as we’re able to get people out. We’ll get people out of the shelter and into their own homes quicker.”

Mitchem says another plus is the new statewide network serving 41 domestic violence shelters. The former statewide coalition was dissolved after Tiffany Carr, its longtime leader, was caught diverting millions of dollars for her own purposes. Last month Carr was arrested on fraud, grand theft, and official misconduct charges.

That leaves Amanda Price, the CEO of the new entity, the Florida Partnership to End Domestic Violence, with a lot of cleaning up to do. Here she is addressing the Senate Committee on Children, Families, and Elder Affairs in March,

“We understand there continue to be concerns about what occurred there,” Price told the senators. “All financial records, documentation, the structure of the new coalition – everything will be available and accessible to any member, to the public, to the media, and to elected officials at any time.”

A key part of the network’s mission, she said, is to connect Florida’s shelters to one another. This is critical, as the separate shelters often have their own staff, their own policies, and their own boards of directors.

“They often don’t have the time or capacity to connect to even counties that are adjacent to them, to understand what trends they are seeing, to reach out and engage with partners in their community or partners next door,” she said. “And that’s where FPEDV has the opportunity to connect all of the centers with all of the partners that connect together to provide a resource for survivors.”

Refuge House, meanwhile, is still recovering from Hurricane Idalia and responding to the mill closure in Taylor County. Mitchem says her hope is that next October, she’ll look back and say a lot of gains were made.

“I have a Plan B in case that doesn’t happen,” she said. “As I’m raising concern about the growing need, I want to temper that concern by saying, ‘Refuge House has a plan. And it’s a good one, and we’ll be announcing the details in a few months. And we are committed to meeting the needs of the community and keeping domestic violence victims safe – and however we need to do that, we will do it.”

Copyright 2023 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Margie Menzel
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