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Nevada is the second worst state in the nation for domestic violence. And getting out of an abusive relationship is usually just the beginning of a survivor’s journey.
About a year ago, the Shade Tree women’s shelter in Las Vegas closed its transitional program, which helped women get back on their feet over the course of a year.
Now, the shelter is using that space to open more emergency shelter space, where women can stay for up to 90 days.
The decision reflects a need for services in Nevada, where homelessness and domestic violence often overlap.
Stacey Lockhart is the executive director of the Shade Tree. She said at one point, 60 percent of the people in the shelter were victims of domestic violence.
Lockhart said as soon as people arrive in the shelter, the staff starts working on an exit plan to get them back on their feet and out of the shelter.
For some people, the exit plan can be simple because they have documents needed to get a job or get social services or rent an apartment.
However, women fleeing abusive situations often come into the shelter with nothing more than the clothes on their back. Lockhart said it can be difficult to get those women on their feet and out of the shelter in 90 days.
To make matters worse for the shelter, if they don't get people out in 90 days, they are docked federal dollars.
Lockhart pointed out that it's not a good idea to move someone out of Shade Tree and into an apartment without dealing with the issues that caused them to become homeless to begin with.
That is one of the reasons Shade Tree works closely with SafeNest, which is one of two domestic violence organizations that offers confidential shelters in Southern Nevada.
Liz Ortenburger is the CEO of SafeNest. She said her organization is able to offer comprehensive services for people who are survivors of domestic violence.
Ortenburger said the shelter offers counseling for survivors, children, and batterers.
But it usually doesn't start there. It often starts with a call to the shelter. Ortenburger said victims of abuse are often not ready to leave their abusers and are unsure how.
The shelter's hotline operators often start by talking victims through a safety plan - not to leave if they are unable or unwilling, but to be safe if the abuse is physical.
“We safety plan around simple things like staying away from the kitchen, if you’re in a physical altercation," Ortenburger said. "Staying away from bathrooms, not getting yourself in a situation where you’re backed into a corner."
When someone is ready to leave - which on average happens after seven attempts - the shelter helps victims to leave safely, advising them on what documents they need to bring, where they can go to be safe, and whether the need to come to the shelter.
“It is really drawing out from a victim every way in which they’ve been safe in the past and what resources they have at their fingertips at the moment to be safe again,” Ortenburger said.
Ortenburger said they offer legal advice and court advocacy for their clients, especially in divorce proceedings and child custody disputes.
But not everyone wants to leave their abuser, she said. Many people want to reunite with their abuser, but they want the abuse to stop.
That is why the shelter offers counselling for batterers. The counselors see about 100 batterers a week and they look at several markers to see if the abuser is really making progress.
“The number one marker is: Is a batterer taking responsibility for their actions. Then we can start to work on rage – far and away most batterers are men … and they are filled with rage," she said.
There are victims who return to their abusers even if the abuser has not sought help and has not resolved to rehabilitate. That decision can lead women back to homelessness.
“If they leave Shade Tree and then they return to us, we’re not going to leave them out on the street. Of course, we bring them in," Lockhart said. "Shade Tree may not be the best place for them to be though, based on what their needs are."
Lockhart said they're trying to do a better job of keeping track of women who leave the shelter. They're also starting a mentor program to connect women so they have support when they leave.
While both the Shade Tree and SafeNest are working to provide what they can for women who have been victimized in their own homes, Southern Nevada is woefully low in resources for these women and children.
“When we say the second worst state in the United States, 85 percent of that domestic violence happens in Clark County and you think there are 105 confidential beds available,” Ortenburger said.
She also said legislators should realize that state funding is weighted to favor Northern Nevada, even though Southern Nevada has a larger population and deals with the majority of domestic violence cases.
Emily Paulsen is the executive director of the Nevada Homeless Alliance. She said about 12 percent of the homeless population who were surveyed said they were victims of domestic violence.
“There is a tremendous lack of resources for survivors and really for every special population in our community who experiences homelessness,” she said.
Paulsen said there are about 190 women and children on the waiting list for services. She said those women and children are often forced to sleep in unsafe places because there simply aren't enough shelter beds.
“We need to see more financial resources going towards this issue from our local governments and through our philanthropic partners,” she said.
Stacey Lockhart agreed. She said it is not just funding from the government but funding from the community.
“We don’t want a handout," she said. "We want an investment in the work that we’re doing because these are people who wouldn’t be served and would be out on the street in dangerous situations."
Lockhart said the shelters are an asset to the community and without them, many very vulnerable women and children would have nowhere to go.
She also believes there needs to be a comprehensive approach to helping people who are homeless in Southern Nevada with an emphasis on affordable housing.
“You can’t solve a homeless problem without houses," she said.
Paulsen said there is clear evidence that housing is the solution.
“We know what the solutions are," she said. "We know what works and housing is that solution. Housing with the right mix of supportive services, case management and targeted assistance.”
As to the larger social issues of domestic violence, Liz Ortenburger said the solution starts with young people.
“The long-term answer: We need to do more to combat rage in our kids,” she said.
Ortenburger said schools need to get involved with helping kids who have had adverse childhood experiences. She said special attention needs to be given to children who have witnessed domestic violence because they are more likely to become abusers or victims themselves.
If you're experiencing domestic violence, contact:
SafeNest at 702-646-4981
Shade Tree 702-385-0072
National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-7233
Liz Ortenburger, CEO, SafeNest; Stacey Lockhart, executive director, The Shade Tree; Emily Paulsen, executive director, NV Homeless Alliance