Public Safety

Shutdown stokes uncertainty for Iowa domestic violence programs

The dome of the U.S. Capitol is seen beyond a chain fence during the partial government shutdown in Washington, D.C., January 8, 2019. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
The dome of the U.S. Capitol is seen beyond a chain fence during the partial government shutdown in Washington, D.C., January 8, 2019. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

As the partial government shutdown continues to drag on, uncertainty weighs heavy on Iowa domestic violence programs and the people they serve.

Heading into its 35th day Friday, the federal shutdown has forced organizations nationwide that help victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse to cut back on lifesaving services, furlough staff and turn people away from shelters, according to the Washington Post.

Many of these organizations heavily rely on federal funding, which was scheduled to stop being allocated last week, according to The Post. However, at the last hour, advocates said the Justice Department decided to extend the money flow until March 1, giving many organizations a temporary reprieve.

For now, Iowa domestic violence programs say the shutdown has not affected funding, however, with many housing and assistance programs feeling the pinch, many of their clients are struggling to get the assistance they need.

“With the government closure, a lot of the individuals we serve can’t do basic things,” said Alta Medea Peters, director of community engagement for the Domestic Violence Intervention Program in Iowa City.

Medea Peters said many of the program’s clients use their time in shelters to gather needed documentation and paperwork so they can apply for ID cards, housing assistance, jobs and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Women Infant and Children benefits.

“Right now, with the shutdown, (our clients) can’t get a social security card, or an ID card, and there is a great delay in getting the paperwork and information that they need,” Medea Peters said. “And if our clients don’t have the documentation that they need … then they are not able to apply for the assistance and those safety nets that we have in place to help people who are fleeing from dangerous situations actually get back on their feet. And that is presenting challenges for our advocates in helping our survivors get the resources they need to move forward.”

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For Ben Brustkern, executive director of Friends of the Family, a victim’s advocacy organization that covers a 20-county area in Eastern and Northeastern Iowa, the continued ability to provide shelter for clients and connect them with affordable housing resources is of grave concern.

“The biggest potential problem I see in the immediate future is longer shelter stays for survivors because the housing options that were there two months ago might not be there tomorrow or next week or next month,” he said.

Brustkern said Friends of the Family has several housing contracts with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, some of which are slated to expire at the end of February.

The contracts, he said, enable the organization to provide affordable housing for homeless clients and rapid rehousing for victims of domestic violence.

In December, the Department of Housing and Urban Development assured advocates nationwide that all affordable housing contracts expiring that month would be renewed and landlords would be paid, according to the Washington Post.

But after the new year, the department revealed that not only had the agency allowed 650 contracts to lapse in December — many having expired even before the shutdown began — but more cutbacks in federal subsidies for low-income housing are also imminent as the government remains closed. Another 525 contracts are slated to expire by the end of next week, and 550 more will lapse in February, according to the department, The Post reported.

“Less housing vouchers and funding options means we don’t have the resources to get people out of shelter and into some sort of temporary or stable housing,” Brustkern said. “And the longer our clients have to stay in shelter, the less space we have for those who need shelter.”

Additionally, Brustkern said he sees a real risk to shelters and food banks if SNAP and WIC benefits take a funding hit.

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SNAP benefits for February have already been distributed ahead of schedule, thanks to a budget provision that allowed the money to be distributed within 30 days of a shutdown. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which distributes the benefits, said it could not commit to providing benefits in March should the shutdown go on that long.

“I think the longer this drags on the more we’re going to see pressure on shelters and food banks to feed those families, and ultimately, I can see that taxing food banks,” he said.

Lindsay Pingles, director of community engagement with the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said for now the only thing Iowa’s organizations can do is “wait and see” how things play out in the coming weeks and plan accordingly.

“The main stress for us is that the longer this goes on, we know we probably will be affected, and what happens then, we’re not really sure,” she said. “Right now we’re just hoping that the shutdown ends quickly so we can continue helping our service providers deliver services to those who need them.”

The outlook seems to change day to day, Medea Peters said.

“We have been reassured that the funds are coming, but as we’ve seen over the last few weeks, it changes every day. What we knew yesterday, is not necessarily what we wake up to the next day,” she said. “So, we are definitely preparing for the possibility that the money could run out. We are both preparing for the long-haul and counting every penny.

As of now, Medea Peters said the Domestic Violence Intervention Program has no intention of curtailing its services, furloughing workers or turning away clients. Instead, she said, “We are looking at ways to cut supply and utility costs, as well as turning to the community for help in the form of donations.”

But the uncertainty, she said, is there, lingering in the backs of the minds of not only the service providers but also their clients.

“The uncertainty is really what’s weighing the most us and especially on our survivors who are already in an uncertain space. They’re already fleeing danger, they really don’t know what next steps to take and then not being able to access resources definitely causes even more stress.”

It’s uncharted territory for everyone, Brustkern said.

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“None of us have been through this long of a shutdown,” he said. “So to start creating contingencies — how do you do that when none of us know what this is going to look like a month or two down the road?”

l Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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