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Ventura County

County's Battered Women Often Have No Safe Haven

Shortage of shelters forces many domestic violence victims to choose between distant facilities or staying with their abusers.

November 04, 2002|Jessica Blanchard | Special to The Times

Nearly 500 battered women were turned away from Ventura County's two emergency shelters last year, as the shelters struggle to find space for the overwhelming number of domestic violence victims seeking refuge.

Victims' advocates say the numbers highlight a growing problem in the county: The shortage of emergency shelter space means many victims must choose between traveling to a shelter in a neighboring county or remaining with their batterer until space opens up locally.

It's a tough choice, one more and more women are being forced to make, said Summer Loree, who helps manage a shelter for the Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence.

"A lot of women will call ahead, and we have to let them know that we can't guarantee them space," Loree said. " ... A lot of people just don't call back."

Domestic violence remains a vastly underreported crime, but more victims seem to be stepping forward in recent years to get help, said Sheriff's Sgt. Bob Sparks, a former supervisor in the department's East County sexual assault unit.

"I'd like to believe victims are becoming more aware and willing to step forward and not be a victim anymore," he said.

The two shelters in the county provide emergency housing for a total of nine families at a time, but the demand for space far exceeds the supply.

"Our shelter stays full most of the time," said Jeff Selby, division director for Interface, a social services agency that runs the county's other domestic violence shelter.

The need for shelter spaces is so high, he said, that Interface could probably fill a shelter twice the current facility's size on a regular basis.

Loree has lost count of the hours she has spent calling shelters in neighboring counties because no space is available at local shelters. In recent years, she has been forced to dip into emergency funds for hotel vouchers or to send women to shelters as far away as Palm Desert or Lancaster because nothing was available nearby.

"It really is common not to find anything," Loree said. "We spend a lot of time searching for openings."

Although it might be possible to arrange a ride to a shelter in Santa Barbara or Riverside County, the distance can present a hardship for the victim, who will have to return to Ventura County several times for court appointments, counseling sessions and meetings with victim advocates.

"It's hard enough to get everything taken care of within 30 days when you're in the county, much less when you're far away with no transportation," Loree said, referring to the time limit placed on shelter users.

Domestic violence victims may also suffer financially by being placed in a shelter that is far from their jobs. If a woman has to leave her job, she may be losing her only means of supporting herself, said Rebecca Robertson, executive director of Domestic Violence Solutions for Santa Barbara County, which operates three shelters there.

"We may be able to get her placed, but it's not necessarily going to meet her goals," Robertson said. "Economic stability is one of the key reasons people stay in an abusive relationship."

For those reasons, some women have refused offers of space in shelters outside the county in the hope that space will open up locally.

"There are those who are so scared, they'll go anywhere," Loree said. "But others think they can appease the batterer until space opens up at the [local] shelter, and that's really dangerous."

Finding shelter space is only half the battle, advocates say.

The duration of a typical shelter stay "just isn't enough time to get your life back on track," Robertson said. Many women at the shelters have limited resources and can't afford to move into an apartment right away.

Other factors compound the problem, such as the county's high cost of living.

Some victims have poor credit, making it unlikely they'll be approved as renters. And there are often long waiting lists for low-cost housing programs.

"If a woman is doing everything she can to get [housing] within 30 days and she still hasn't been able to, we don't want to kick her out," Loree said. "But that backs us up even more."

Creating more transitional housing could alleviate the immediate need for more shelter space, advocates said. Transitional housing allows victims to live in low-cost apartments for up to 18 months, while they work to become financially stable and independent -- a crucial step for domestic violence victims attempting to build a new life.

"The shelter is a 30-day program, but we often find there is a great need for more time for women to be able to reestablish themselves in society," said Lisette Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence. "Oftentimes, they have left in the middle of the night with very little resources. And it takes time to get back on their feet."

There are a few facilities in the area that offer transitional housing. Santa Barbara offers 14 one-bedroom apartments, and Interface operates a five-family, six-month transitional housing facility in Ventura County.

But shelter operators say funding is too tight to make any expansion plans for the near future. As nonprofits, the shelters rely on state grants and donations for most of their budgets.

"Funding is always an issue," Rodriguez said, adding that her organization is still waiting to see how recent state budget cuts will affect its budget. "We're waiting on pins and needles for the word."

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