The coronavirus pandemic is increasing safety concerns for people in homes where domestic violence occurs and is posing new challenges at Alaska shelters that serve survivors.
“It’s a time when we are housebound,” said Diane Casto, executive director of Alaska’s Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. “It creates increased stress and pressure.”
Alaska has one of the highest rates of intimate partner violence in the U.S. People most vulnerable to domestic and sexual violence and child abuse are at higher risk while sheltering in place at home, said Casto.
Calls to crisis hotlines around the country are on the rise, according to published reports. Casto said she has heard anecdotally there’s been a slight increase in Alaska, but nothing significant yet.
With mandates for social distancing, self-quarantine for people possibly exposed to the new coronavirus and isolation for confirmed cases, shelter management is getting more complicated. It entails finding isolation rooms in packed facilities, identifying alternative housing or diverting people elsewhere. That’s the case in Anchorage at the Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis shelter, or AWAIC.
AWAIC has 52 beds for people fleeing domestic violence. It has operated over capacity about 43% of the time over the past five years, and demand is at an all-time high, according to Suzi Pearson, executive director. But keeping people safe during the coronavirus outbreak has cut space at the shelter.
Thirty women and children are currently staying at AWAIC, following social distancing guidance for shelters from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Pearson.
Shelter workers are triaging potential newcomers, accepting only those facing the most danger.
“We are prioritizing those with high-lethality cases, meaning they are at great risk for future harm to themselves and their children,” Pearson said. “We use a danger assessment mode to assist us.”
For those who can’t stay at the shelter, staff ask if relatives or friends can provide a safe space. If that’s not possible, AWAIC refers them to other shelters including Clare House, McKinnell House or, if they are single women, to Downtown Hope Center or the Ben Boeke Ice Arena. Along with the nearby Sullivan Arena for men, the city recently converted the ice arena into an emergency mass shelter for the next four months.
Some shelters in other parts of Alaska, such as Palmer, Kenai and Kodiak, say their numbers are slightly down from usual. Some survivors may be sheltering at home, trying to make the best of it while the pandemic lasts, operators say.
They may be weighing the risks of staying in a dangerous situation versus fleeing to a communal setting with people who might have the virus.
“I think people are afraid. They’re trying to figure out what’s the best scenario,” said Cheri Smith, executive director of Kenai’s LeeShore Center, a domestic violence shelter.
Casto and others encourage anyone facing danger to use crisis hotlines or call shelters directly for advice and referrals.
On average, domestic violence hotlines nationwide receive 21,000 calls per day, about 15 calls every minute, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. That was before the pandemic.
A 2015 study by the University of Alaska Anchorage estimated that half of all Alaska women experience intimate partner violence, sexual violence or both during their lifetime.
During the coronavirus pandemic, shelters’ staffing in some cases is lower than normal because of school closures, lack of child care or workers staying home if they have vulnerable people in their household. But all programs are open for some level of service, and all have local and toll-free crisis line numbers to call for help, said Casto.
Many programs are starting to use telework options and working with survivors on enhancing their safety plans if they chose to remain at home. But it’s not easy. Where do people go to call a domestic violence shelter or crisis hotline if they are in close quarters with an abuser?
“If you are sequestered in your home, how do you do that? Where do they go to get away from that?” said Carmen Lowery, executive director of the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault.
Some shelters are working with cities to secure hotel rooms should clients come down with COVID-19 and need to isolate.
“When you’re dealing with emergency shelters, you really need to have a plan for isolation centers,” said Smith.
Mandy Cole, executive director of Juneau’s domestic violence shelter, said she is asking her city to provide hotel rooms should a COVID-19 case arise in her facility, AWARE. But hotel rooms would work only if the client has a safety plan that makes staying in a hotel feasible.
Cole said the Juneau shelter has one bedroom that could be used for isolation, but it doesn’t have a separate bathroom. According to CDC guidance, people with COVID-19 who don’t need hospitalization should stay in their own room and use a separate bathroom. That’s not always feasible, especially in many parts of Alaska where houses are often small and crowded. Many lack running water and indoor plumbing, creating serious challenges for maintaining adequate hygiene during a pandemic.
Kodiak Women’s Resource and Crisis Center is working with city officials to secure hotel rooms or other alternative options for sick clients to self-isolate, said Rebecca Shields, executive director.
A COVID-19 outbreak “could put the whole shelter at risk,” Shields said.
At Anchorage’s AWAIC shelter, “we would work with the city and state to find a place to quarantine the individual since they would be considered homeless,” said Pearson.
At the municipality’s Emergency Operations Center, officials said recently that planning for isolation centers for homeless COVID-19 patients is underway, but their locations will not be publicly disclosed to protect their privacy.
Housing for homeless families in Anchorage is also changing during the pandemic. During cold weather, 10 Anchorage churches were voluntarily providing emergency shelter at night to families under an agreement with the municipality. That program ended Wednesday due to concerns over the new coronavirus and the loss of volunteers.
“The Municipality of Anchorage is working to finalize a memorandum of understanding to transition families to a temporary shelter space,” said Carolyn Hall, communications director for Mayor Ethan Berkowitz.
Hall would not disclose the location of the temporary shelter. Some families using the new shelter are escaping domestic violence and keeping the location confidential is for their safety, said Jasmine Boyle, with the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. Anyone needing shelter is urged to call 211 for a referral, she said.
If you or someone you know needs help, here are some numbers you can call:
• For immediate response, call 911
• Alaska 211 ( assistance, referrals, resources)
• Alaska’s CARELINE: 877-266-4357
• National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233
• National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-787-3224
• To report child abuse: 800-478-4444 or online at ReportChildAbuse@alaska.gov
• For a listing of all local victim services’ hotlines: dps.alaska.gov/CDVSA/Services/VictimServices