Southern Nevada has limited options to house domestic violence survivors
During the pandemic SafeNest has added 25 beds to the main campus, going from 75 to 100 beds. But with limited bed space at shelter programs, SafeNest turned to overflow housing by renting out hotel rooms. (SafeNest photo)
In a range from one to 20 on a lethality scale, an assessment that SafeNest does with those experiencing domestic violence who are looking to leave an abusive partner, you would need to score a 16 in order to secure a bed and a safe place to stay.
Assessment questions include asking if the abuser has choked a survivor, owns a gun, leaves threatening messages, and has threatened physical violence on more than one occasion or warned they might kill.
Liz Ortenburger, the CEO of SafeNest, will be the first person to admit that even scoring 13, 14 or 15 are all high and in those situations, case workers will begin “safety planning” with clients to determine if there are other friends or family they can stay with.
But domestic violence programs in Southern Nevada have a limited number of beds, whether in shelters, or hotel rooms used as emergency overflow housing, and that has forced SafeNest to adopt a higher lethality score.
“Anyone would look at that and say that’s short-sighted or ask ‘why aren’t we housing people with lower lethality because it will take less services to help them heal,’ ” she said. “But the fact of the matter is I dont have enough resources to take people at lower lethality so we really are helping those who are imminent risk for homicide not be murdered.”
During the pandemic SafeNest has relied on funding provided by the CARES Act, federal pandemic relief legislation passed in 2020, to pay for placing domestic violence survivors in overflow housing.
In 2022, SafeNest paid for more than 12,000 rooms to house domestic and sexual assault violence survivors in hotels and motels.
The nonprofit used the largest number of rooms and housed 1,794 clients in July. The number of clients decreased slightly in August to 1,512 and has slowly started to decline but still remains higher than at the beginning of the year.
Using federal relief dollars, a finite stream of money, to pay for rooms was always a temporary solution.
Ortenburger says the state and local governments, especially in Southern Nevada, need to invest in and create shelter space and housing specifically for domestic violence survivors.
December is the last month SafeNest will be able to pay for hotel rooms to place survivors.
If there is an influx of survivors needing a space to stay in the coming months, Ortenburger said SafeNest may have to further tighten the criteria it uses to qualify survivors for housing. In other words, survivors would have to score a 17 on the lethality scale.
“I will say we won’t go higher than a 17,” she said. “What we will do is figure out and say ‘well, we don’t have as much hotel money as we used to. What does it look like to put air mattresses in our multipurpose room?’”
Searching for a permanent fix
According to a 2022 “Women’s Safety in Nevada” report from UNLV’s Women’s Research Institute, nearly 44% of women in Nevada will experience domestic violence in their lifetime.
The authors note that in 2021, the state ranked 4th in the country for high rates of intimate partner violence, and “4% of women murdered in domestic violence killings contact an organization like SafeNest in the year before their death.”
“Organizations like SafeNest, which provide safe housing, need more funding to meet demand. SafeNest currently can house only 100 victims; the non-profit spends about $30,000 monthly on hotel rooms to keep victims away from abusers,” the authors wrote.
SafeNest works with about 25,000 clients each year, which includes counseling, court advocacy, shelter programs and transitional housing. Similar to what social service agencies have found with homelessness, the housing crisis has resulted in some clients staying in transitional housing longer.
During the pandemic SafeNest has added 25 beds to the main campus, going from 75 to 100 beds. But with limited bed space at shelter programs, SafeNest turned to overflow housing by renting out hotel rooms.
Prior to the pandemic, the organization used overflow housing on occasion, especially for male survivors or clients who are transgender or gender nonbinary. CARES Act funds opened the door for the organization to offer overflow housing at a larger scale.
In the last two years, the nonprofit has spent between $30,000 and $70,000 each month for overflow housing. In August, SafeNest had a $100,000 bill from housing survivors in overflow housing.
The monthly bill retreated to $35,000 in September.
“We’ve seen a little relief of transitional housing opening up a little, which is why October is a little less,” she said.
This is all a short term fix.
With the federal American Rescue Plan Act, which infused states with billions of dollars to be used to address -related hardships as well as systemic inequities that were exposed and exacerbated by pandemic, Ortenburger saw an opportunity for larger investments in domestic violence resources.
“We know financial stress is also a reason for domestic violence to spike, and we certainly saw that during COVID,” she said.
Ortenburger envisioned opening a larger facility, with private rooms and more onsite services including counseling, legal assistance and child care for survivors as they work their way through programs. SafeNest’s proposal was to use $25 million of ARPA funds to build a 365 bed facility with 90 private rooms.
“Essentially anyone suffering in the space of what we work with could get all their services met in one location,” she said.
Early on, the states and counties committed to use ARPA funds to prioritize the building of affordable housing to contend with Nevada’s housing crisis, among the worst in the nation. That commitment included projects that addressed transitional housing for marginalized groups and the lowest income renters, including those experiencing homelessness.
With most aspects of the social safety net strained throughout Nevada, state and municipal governments received more applications than they could meet with the ARPA funding.
As a result, many organizations were denied funding.
Ortengburger said the City of Las Vegas, Clark County and the state all rejected SafeNest’s proposal.
“Here is my frustration about ARPA funding,” she said. “It was designed to help folks that have been negatively impacted by COVID. There was no population more than low income single mothers who have been more impacted by COVID.”
While Ortenburger recognizes the need for transitional housing, she worries there isn’t a dedicated space for domestic violence survivors and housing that specifically addresses the need of women.
National studies have found that domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness for women and children.
Here is my frustration about ARPA funding...It was designed to help folks that have been negatively impacted by COVID. There was no population more than low income single mothers who have been more impacted by COVID. – Liz Ortenburger, SafeNest
Here is my frustration about ARPA funding...It was designed to help folks that have been negatively impacted by COVID. There was no population more than low income single mothers who have been more impacted by COVID.
– Liz Ortenburger, SafeNest
But the programs addressing homelessness, such as organizations like Catholic Charities, do great work but the focus is on men who experience homelessness, she said.
“When I read the reports shared with me, that has been a common theme as we assessed our social services,” she said. “Where is the voice for women and children as it relates to homelessness and domestic violence?”
It’s similar when it comes to workforce development programs, something her clients rely on as well.
“My question is always what’s the plan for child care,” she said. “If we’re not creating a parallel plan for child care for women to get back into the workforce we’re basically saying there is no plan for you or opportunities for you. Or we’re asking mom to put her child in a child care situation that is untenable.”
Even though SafeNest didn’t receive ARPA funds, Ortenburger warns the crisis is still brewing.
But she also believes the problem can be solved.
“Clark County is not so big that we couldn’t achieve this,” she said. “We are not dealing with a county of 20 million people. We are dealing with a county of 2.2 million. We can get our hands around this and create such an incredible foundation for the growth of our county but also the growth of our state.”
The ‘crisis is going up’
When Stevee first got into her new apartment in September, she was nervous.
Stevee - a pseudonym for a domestic violence survivor who preferred not to use her name for safety concerns - arrived at SafeNest in March.
For almost seven months while staying at a shelter, whenever Stevee needed support she could always go downstairs to find support from staff and other survivors.
“When I first got my place, I was happy but also scared,” she said. “This is me, out on my own with my kids. The support from going downstairs is gone.”
In March, Stevee was attacked by the father of her children. They had already been going through a custody battle. The two got into a public argument during the day. That night Stevee went to her sister’s house when she got a call from her former partner.
“I don’t remember how, but he lured me outside,” she said. “He came up behind me and punched me. He body slammed me.”
While being treated for a dislocated arm and a head injury, Stevee was encouraged to reach out to SafeNest. Stevee, fearing for her safety, was told beds were full but case workers were searching for a place.
“I was so anxious and trying to think about a plan B for where to go,” she said. “It took a couple hours and they called me back saying they had space for me.”
For clients being housed, there isn’t a timeframe for how long someone can stay as long as they are working on their goals. Though the average stay is between 60 to 70 days, Ortenburger said that could be much longer.
“You cannot take someone who is struggling with domestic violence and put them immediately into transitional housing and believe that is a solution,” she said. “There needs to be a period of time, three to six months, in a program where they are safe (and) have access to counseling and resources.”
Stevee’s goals while she was staying with SafeNest included finding a job, starting counseling and beginning the arduous process of finding a new place to live.
“The housing part was long because we’re in such a crisis right now,” she said. “I kept applying for housing and didn’t get anything until the end of August. I reached out to different organizations because all of the women are going through it. How are we supposed to start this stepping stone if we can’t even get in?”
Stevee couldn’t imagine what her journey would have looked like if she wasn’t able to get into a shelter bed in March.
Even though she is one of the fortunate ones to be able to secure a bed, she hopes more people realize this isn’t the case for every person looking to escape abuse.
“The level of crisis is going up,” she said. “There were times the shelter was completely full and they could only put so many people in hotels.”
Ortenburger fears that with the city’s tourism numbers increasing, the crisis will come to a head and there will be no beds available.
“When we have events that come here like Nascar or the Super Bowl, it’s not as if we have extra beds available,” she said. “So when someone, gosh forbid, is sexually assaulted or trying to escape trafficking or we have a domestic violence incident through the influx of people in the city, we do not have safe and reliable resources for those residents and guests.”
‘We adjust accordingly’
Since finding out SafeNest wasn’t getting awarded ARPA funds, Ortenburger said she has been working with county and city officials to look for other options.
In the meantime, SafeNest has since retooled the proposal and is working on using existing land it owns to quickly open a smaller facility in 2023.
“We are playing a little bit of a betting game,” she said, trying to “forecast where those transitional housing openings are going to be, and where does that lethality number sit for the clients calling and requesting shelter.”
“We adjust accordingly,” Ortenburger said.
Usually in the month of December, Ortenburger said because of the holidays people postpone leaving a violent situation.
“Particularly if there are kids,” she said. “They don’t want the kids to miss out on that holiday with the family. Then we will see a large spike in January as people sort of say enough is enough.”
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