Gimme Shelter

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

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.

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.

All 28 state-funded women's shelters partner with Day One Center, a nonprofit service that provides victims access to a shelter or advocate. Because so many are operating at capacity, that means Day One might direct an abuse victim in Minneapolis to a shelter in Brainerd. And because the length of stays is increasing, Minnesota shelters, which include homeless shelters, had to turn away 1,330 people during the month of August. A study by the Wilder Research Center in 2003 found that nearly one out of every three homeless women in Minnesota was a victim of domestic violence.

The Tubman shelter's Schubring says emergency shelter for domestic abuse victims is only a quick fix for a complex problem. "As these cutbacks cut us deeper and deeper, we're not able to provide the counseling services, the public education to help others, and other innovative ways to prevent family violence," he says. "You're just putting the Band-Aid on the problem."

That sentiment is echoed by Susan Neis, executive director of Cornerstone, a domestic violence shelter in Bloomington. Cornerstone's community outreach and violent prevention programs have been the hardest hit, though Neis says Cornerstone, along with the state's other battered women's shelters, is doing everything possible to keep from turning away women. The shelter also operates at or near capacity at all times, with less staff, less funding, and fewer services.

"The 2003 legislative session was particularly harsh," says Neis. "We lost 20 percent for the shelter last year. When the state cut back, the county cut back. When the county cut back, the city cut back."

While the shelters are facing a funding crisis, Neis and other domestic-violence advocates say the other major crisis is in affordable housing. "The most devastating impact has been what has happened to affordable housing," she says. "It used to be that Section 8 certificates would turn over. Now they don't move." The city of Bloomington opened up its Section 8 waiting list in June. Over a three-day period, more than 3,400 people inquired about vouchers. Only 1,200 were able to get on the waiting list, which is where they remain today. This shortage and the cutbacks for domestic shelters are leaving many women with nowhere to go.

Under rules set by the Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD), 75 percent of Section 8 vouchers must be awarded to those whose income is 30 percent or less than the household median for that area are being served. According to HUD, the median household income for families in the metro area, including Bloomington, is $76,400. That means a family of four making more than the 30 percent median of $23,000 (but less than the low-income cap of $38,300) in the metro area may never get served.

Younger women aren't faring any better with public housing. Most of those dwellings are going to those 62 and older, and the majority of lists for low-income apartments in every county are closed unless a would-be renter is elderly, disabled, or willing to remain on the only "open" list for pricier four- and five-bedroom apartments. Considering that the fair market rent (the appropriate rent and utility costs as determined in each county by HUD) for a two-bedroom apartment in Minneapolis and surrounding areas is $912, these women are left with few options. A person making even $35,000 wouldn't likely be able to afford to pay the two-bedroom fair market rent.

What's more, homes priced below $150,000 in Minnesota are becoming virtually extinct. Chip Halbach, executive director of Minnesota Housing Partnership, says that in 1998, 28,000 homes were sold below $150,000 in the 13-county metro area. That number dropped to 8,000 in 2003.

In the coming months, there are signs that the already burdened housing system will only get worse. In April, the Section 8 program was cut back for the first time in its 30-year history, and payments were capped at August 2003 levels, leaving housing authorities with fewer vouchers to give out. The Bush administration and HUD have plans to scale back funding for vouchers by as much as $1.6 billion next year. The change must first be approved by the Republican-controlled Congress.  

But if Beal has any say, Congress won't approve the measure. Tubman Family Alliance recently lost a grant for a program that helped families navigate the convoluted housing program. She's been forced to learn the ins and outs of the system mostly on her own, something she's become accustomed to in recent months after visiting the state Capitol and writing letters to congressmen. "I'm self-involved in the politics," she says. "I get out and see what other resources are out there and find out what's going on with the government and how the laws and processes can be changed."

Though she has an affinity for watching fungus grow under a microscope, she's hoping to land a job in the political arena after she gets her GED and graduates from college. "At first, I wanted a fashion-design career," she says. "But now I want a job in politics."

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