Gimme Shelter

Budget cuts and Bush are leaving victims of domestic violence out in the cold

LaJaunna Beal makes a circle with her index finger and thumb and places it over her eye. She pretends to peer through an imaginary microscope to emphasize her point that even floating mitochondria are beautiful. "Ooooh! Looking at stuff through microscopes was such a cool thing. I used to love dissecting stuff. I was a science freak," says the 31-year-old mother of two. "I was in trigonometry my freshman year," she boasts. "I loved math, too. I used to be good at it."

Despite her penchant for the hard sciences, Beal never received her high school diploma. During her freshman and sophomore years, she began rebelling against her mom and became tethered to what she describes as "the wrong crowd." Eventually, she quit going to her Chicago high school altogether.

A shelter is not a home: LaJuanna Beal, and many like her, search for where to go next
Molly Priesmeyer
A shelter is not a home: LaJuanna Beal, and many like her, search for where to go next

Beal has been living in one of Tubman Family Alliance's 11 transitional housing apartments for 17 months. She fled an abusive relationship, a more than one-year stint that also caused her to lose her job two years ago as a sales clerk at the Lerner New York clothing store in the Mall of America. She was fired for missing too many days, time she took off to let her wounds heal or take care of her kids. Her ex-boyfriend also physically abused her 11-year-old son, whom she brought along with her 8-year-old daughter to live at the south Minneapolis domestic violence shelter. Because of Tubman's time limits for transitional housing--commonly two years among shelters--Beal has to be out in less than seven months.

In the meantime, Beal is hoping to find a job, get her GED, rent a decent apartment, and eventually go to college. But there are a few hurdles to cross first. Under the new Diversionary Work Program, Minnesota's work-focused welfare program that was adopted by the legislature in 2003, she must work 30 hours before receiving assistance to take GED math classes, which she needs to take because the pre-tests showed she was weak in that area. Most employers, however, want prospective employees to have at least a GED before they'll consider hiring them. Among other things, she also needs to find childcare, transportation, and money for rental-application fees. She's on the waiting list for Section 8 housing in Bloomington. She's been on it for 15 months.

Tubman Family Alliance's transitional apartments are constantly filled. And the shelter, which has been operating at capacity for the past year, is seeing women staying beyond the allotted 30-day period. Tubman's average stay is now at 32 days, up from 24 just a few years ago. Its sister shelter in Lake Elmo recently hit 103 percent capacity, offering a sleeping space for women wherever it was available. "The lack of affordable housing has become a real problem," says Randy Schubring, director of communications at Tubman Family Alliance. "Women are staying at shelters longer because of it."

While the 28 publicly funded shelters across the state are operating at or near capacity, they also are operating on a greatly reduced budget. In the past year, some shelters across the state saw their funding decrease by as much as 20 percent. This added wallop came after the state legislature created a new distribution formula for domestic violence shelters in 2000 that limited the shelters' ability to provide necessary services. Instead of paying a per diem to shelters for all women and children served, as it had in the past, the state created a capped appropriation of general fund dollars. It was set at $18.3 million in 2003, but cut to $15.3 million for each fiscal year 2004 and 2005.

Since 2000, Alexandra House in Blaine has weathered a 30 percent decrease in annual revenue for shelter services. The shelter also lost major funding for its Domestic Abuse Response Team Project, a community education program, and has had to scale back its violence prevention programs. "We have not had to make any major cuts because we were able to draw from our cash reserves to cover the funding gap," says Connie Moore, the shelter's executive director. "We will no longer be able to do this at the end of this fiscal year. At that point, we will be forced to make some very difficult decisions and make drastic cuts to our services."

Most women's shelters have had to cut staff members who provide women with assistance in everything from court hearings to housing to employment. Programs in intervention and community education have been cut across the board in order to keep the shelters from closing. And job training and assistance has almost disappeared as workforce centers have downsized.

According to Cyndi Cook, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, the loss of these services has severely challenged victims of domestic violence as well as the community. "We are very worried about the future of both shelters and community advocacy services for battered women and their children in Minnesota," she says.

While Minnesota once led the charge in advocating for battered women, opening one of the country's first shelters in 1974, domestic violence shelters have since become merely a source for "three hots and a cot," meaning an emergency shelter providing only food and a bed and nothing else. Because of the lack of counseling, education, and follow-up measures, many women are forced to either go back to their abuser or live on the streets. "More women and children have also become homeless as a result of the loss of financial support," Cook says.

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