Utah shelters remain open for abuse victims at risk while staying home

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) The YWCA campus in Salt Lake City.

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To stay safe from COVID-19, public health officials urge everyone who can to stay at home — but for some people, staying home can also put them at risk.

Salt Lake City police said that after Utah announced school closures and urged more stringent self-isolation, 911 dispatchers received 30% more domestic violence calls than normal. About 25% more people reached out to the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition for support services, like counseling, financial assistance or shelter, over that same time period, executive director Jenn Oxborrow said.

As sheltering in place effectively traps victims with their abuser, increased tension from a job loss or reduced work hours because of the virus can lead to more instances of domestic violence.

“The thing that’s different with COVID,” Oxborrow said, “is that people are very abruptly confronting some very significant financial stressors — the loss of work, issues about housing expenses and the unknown of how long this will go on.”

Even in organizations that haven’t yet seen a spike in calls, there’s concern, said Erin Jemison, YWCA director of public policy. While national survey of YWCAs found a significant increase in requests for services, Jemison said, numbers in Salt Lake City are about normal.

“Our guess is that people who would have normally called while their abusive partner was out of the house no longer have that flexibility,” she said. “And so we are actually concerned that people are experiencing more danger and are at higher risk, but haven't yet figured out how to reach out.”

Shelters still open

Even with many businesses and community services closed, all of YWCA’s services for domestic violence victims are open, including walk-up services out of the Family Justice Center in downtown Salt Lake City, Jemison said.

Shelter space, however, has been reduced to comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Fewer people are in rooms now, meaning the shelter is housing about 200 people when it once could hold 250.

South Valley Services in West Jordan and its shelter is still operating, too, while trying to offer as many services to people via video or phone as they can, executive director Jenn Campbell said.

At Safe Harbor, still open in Farmington, there have been more calls since schools closed, director of development Glady Larsen said. And many callers have been requesting help with finances, hoping to lessen the tension in the household and mitigate possible violence, she said.

She was driving a check to a client when The Salt Lake Tribune spoke with her Tuesday.

Some children who are stuck at home may be witnessing domestic violence. For these kids, school was an escape. “They no longer have that refuge,” Larsen said.

Others in the community are also responding to the need. The RSL Foundation announced Wednesday that an apartment building in Logan that it and the Dell Loy Hansen Family Foundation bought and renovated to give to CAPSA, a nonprofit domestic violence recovery center search the Cache County area, will open Thursday — earlier than expected.

“This four-plex is coming online at the perfect time — it feels like a miracle,” CAPSA executive director Jill Anderson said in a new release.

While the space will eventually be a housing program through CAPSA, when it opens Thursday, the building will be used as emergency shelter for those who need it.

‘Reach out for help'

Police know more domestic violence calls are going to be coming, said Orem Police Chief Gary Giles, who also is president of the Utah Chiefs of Police Association.

“The problem is we don’t have a way of saying we’re going to ramp up for this,” he said. “We’re trying to respond to a situation that’s unprecedented right now.

Unified police spokeswoman Sgt. Melody Gray said the department hadn’t seen an uptick in domestic violence calls, but she said officers are expecting they will soon.

Salt Lake City police reported 71 domestic violence calls in the last week of February and 73 in the first week of March. During the week that began March 9, and again last week, there were 96 offenses, according to SLCPD.

“If your relationship is already not on solid ground, then the stress of a situation like the one we are seeing will bring out more problems or more severe episodes,” SLCPD spokesman Greg Wilking said in an email.

“That is why it is so important that people reach out for help ahead of time," he said, "so it doesn’t go so terribly wrong.”

Right now, Jemison said, abuse victims may feel more OK with facing the “devil they know.” For those who decide to ask for help during the outbreak, advocates for victims of domestic violence will be around to help.

“That’s the one message that I worry about most,” said Campbell with South Valley Services, “is that people will just assume that they don’t have anywhere to go and any help — and we’re here. We’re here, and we’re wanting to help in any way we can.


Editor’s note: Those who are experiencing intimate partner violence, or know someone who is, are urged to call the Utah Domestic Violence Link Line, 1-800-897-LINK (5465), or the Utah Rape and Sexual Assault Crisis Line, 1-888-421-1100. For emergencies, call 911.