Estes Valley Crisis Advocates hasn’t taken a direct hit from the government shutdown—yet. But it’s just a matter of time.
“We’re very aware of where we’re at and when that’ll run out,” says Diana David Brown. Brown is the executive director at the domestic violence shelter, which also provides emergency response services in Estes Park, Colorado. “There is a point where we would have to start looking at cutbacks in hours and layoffs. That’s probably the end of this month.”
The organization is the only crisis domestic violence shelter in the area, run by four full-time employees, two part-time employees, and volunteers. “It’s full all the time,” Brown says. Estes Park is a tourist town, at the base of Rocky Mountain National Park, so the center comes to the aid of the thousands of visitors who flock to the area every year, for everything from responding to tourist fights that involve domestic violence to counseling services for unexpected deaths. But its budget relies heavily on federal grants; just a small share of its funding comes from private donations, given the small year-round community in which it exists.
The shelter is already feeling some effects of the shutdown. It recently got approval to use grant money to get new equipment to Skype with legal experts in the closest cities (which are about 40 miles away). And its heating system is outdated and old, at risk of breaking down and forcing the organization to relocate shelter residents to hotels, but the application it put in for grant money to update it is from a fund that’s frozen while the government remains shuttered. They’ve put all these plans on hold until the shutdown comes to an end.
“I just don’t know how long programs can hold on at this point.”
Nationwide, programs like the ones that Estes Valley Crisis Advocates operates are desperately waiting for reimbursements to come through—money that was set aside for them last year but hasn’t arrived yet, explains Cindy Southworth, executive vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “This is money that shouldn’t be locked up,” she says. But because the employees who work at the Department of Justice who release the funds were furloughed, the checks couldn’t go out. The DOJ was able to bring some employees back to work to process the payments on January 7, but that is a bandaid at best. The department has told providers that it only has enough money carried over from prior years to flow funds through January 17. It’s also not clear whether enough DOJ employees are back on the job to process all of the frantic requests for reimbursements.
“We’re literally days away from them running out of federal funds,” Southworth says. Unlike federal employees who can be made to work without pay if they’re deemed to be essential, many states have laws that won’t allow shelter staff to work or even volunteer their services without pay. “It may mean shelters closing down, hotlines going dark,” she says. “Local organizations are terrified. They’re crunching the numbers, they’re watching. They’re seeing exactly how long can we hang in there and at what point do we have to start shutting down.”
Such an outcome is almost sure to have devastating consequences. When Southworth was new in her career and staffing a hotline, she picked up a call one day from a little boy whose mother had sent him to a neighbor’s house to supposedly get some flowers. He told Southworth that his stepfather was holding his mother hostage and had said that if police showed up at the house, “He’ll kill the police and kill himself and the whole family,” she recalls. Southworth was able to contact the mother and come up with a plan: because the mother had a medical condition, she was able to convince her partner to take her to the hospital. Southworth reached out to the police, who went to the hospital disguised as doctors. They were able to get her and her children away from the abuser, and that evening they booked the family into their shelter.
“It was an incredible, incredible day,” she says. But it was only possible because the organization was fully staffed with paid employees, all of whom pitched in to help get the family to safety. “There’s no way that could have been done with a volunteer on the hotline,” she notes. “Volunteers are fantastic, but they have to be backed up by paid staff…who know the ins and outs, know the legal system.”
Once programs can’t cover their expenses, victims will start to feel the effects immediately, sources say. “I just don’t know how long programs can hold on at this point with all of their staff,” says Joyce Grover, executive director of the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. “There may be a reduction in staffing for outreach offices, people may have to get an appointment in order to see someone.” Victims may face delays in assistance for getting protection orders, talking to law enforcement, getting examined at a hospital, or even going into shelter. “Somebody who needs help with a protection order will either have to wait by the phone or be delayed in getting one,” she says, “and we know that’s just not safe.”
Without the staff available to pull such heroics off, “lives are on the line,” Southworth says. “If the life-saving domestic violence frontline advocates are laid off and our hotlines go dark, lives are on the line.”
In the event that the shutdown continues past the end of the month and federal money dries up, Brown and her program director Cato Kraft at Estes Valley Crisis Advocates have discussed deferring their own pay and cutting other people’s hours, knowing full well what the ramifications could be. “We just can’t have people work and not get paid,” Brown says. “Nobody’s in this work for the money, but they have to have the money to do this work.” Having fewer staff on hand couldn’t come at a worse time. As the shutdown creates stress in people’s lives, particularly for the federal employees who work for Rocky Mountain National Park and low-income residents who rely on government services, the need for help will rise.
“We’re all hoping that this freeze doesn’t last,” Brown says. “Everyday we’re hoping that something’s going to change. But it’s all a little scary.”
Larger, urban and suburban providers and shelters may be able to weather the lack of federal money longer since they are more likely to have a base of donors and local funding in their budgets that they can fall back on. But smaller, rural programs are less likely to have that kind of unrestricted money to plug the holes. “Programs that are already operating on a shoestring budget with a federal grant or a couple of federal grants—those programs are most at risk,” Southworth says. The same is likely true for more specific programs such as tribal ones that serve Native Americans or those that serve the elderly.
All providers that Glamour spoke to stress they will do whatever they can to keep their core services running. But options may be limited. Providers may choose not to pay rent or other utilities to at least make sure their staff gets paid. But there’s no doubt, as Southworth points out, that “the biggest part of their budget is payroll.” Even if an organization forgoes other bills, it won’t be long before it can’t issue paychecks.
“We’re getting people calling and saying, ‘How much longer are you going to be open?’ People think they’re not going to get services.”
The uncertainty and confusion has almost certainly trickled down to those who are dealing with and trying to escape violence. Many may see the news of the shutdown and assume that providers and shelters have had to close, even though none have taken that step.
“We’re getting people calling and saying, ‘How much longer are you going to be open?’” says Beth Hassett, executive director of WEAVE, a services provider for domestic violence and sexual assault in Sacramento, California. “People think they’re not going to get services.” The confusion may make people who are considering leaving an abusive relationship or getting counseling hesitate. “It certainly has a chilling effect on people who are debating what their future holds,” Hassett says. If the government is shutting down, she adds, people may wonder if services will be there to help them move forward. That could mean some stay in dangerous situations because they assume there will be no one to help them if they reach out.
Staff feel the impact, too. It’s already a difficult job. Employees are underpaid, overworked, Southworth says: “We know that the toll this work takes on these heroic advocates is challenging.” Now they are also grappling with not knowing if they’re going to get a paycheck to cover their rent and bills, or whether they will soon have no job at all. If people get furloughed or let go, once the government reopens, Grover says, you have to convince staff to come back. “If this talk of uncertainty continues on federally and you’ve been able to find another position, you’re probably not going to want to come back.”
The irony, of course, is that Trump has repeatedly stressed that he has to keep the government shutdown to extract funding for his border wall in the name of safety and security. But the shutdown, if it continues, will threaten women’s safety and security as services and shelters go dark.
“About 1,300 to 1,500 women are killed every single year by their intimate partner,” Southworth says. “That is domestic terrorism. If we have the audacity to shut down those life saving services in the alleged name of security and safety, that’s appalling. It’s unconscionable.”
Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy. She is a contributing op-ed writer at the New York Times and a contributing writer at The Nation.