CLEARWATER — Each year, thousands of Pinellas residents, most of them women, become battered, terrified, demoralized victims of domestic violence. For help, many turn to the Outreach Center of the Haven of RCS, one of 42 state-certified domestic violence centers in Florida.
"It is a place,'' according to RCS chief Caitlin Higgins-Joy, "of hope and safety that anybody can access to get the resources they need to lead a violence-free life."
That's one way to describe The Haven's Outreach Center. Here's another:
It's a 76-year-old, retrofitted house. Its exterior stone work, patched many times over the years, is crumbling beyond repair. Two additions to the center leak during heavy rains. The back of the most recent addition is prone to flooding. An engineering report stated that "the walls are deteriorated to the point where they can no longer support the roof loads." This has caused cracking in the exterior walls and caused the north wall to lean outward.
A jack supports one corner of the building.
Now, Higgins-Joy is the one who needs help. More specifically, she needs close to a million dollars.
The Haven is just that. Those in immediate danger can find refuge in its secretly located, 36-bed Emergency Safe House. Between 400 and 450 women and children pass through the shelter annually. Many thousands more need help recognizing and getting out of abusive relationships or getting their lives back together once they have.
"We're looking to make women healthy on many levels in their lives," said Haven Director Chris Warwick. "You need to be happy with yourself and self-sufficient to be a healthy person."
Crucial to that effort is the Outreach Center, which provides a host of services, including safety planning, legal advocacy, counseling, support groups, employment and housing assistance, and prevention education. All this activity is centered in a building whose time has long passed but whose mission has never been more crucial.
Pinellas County law enforcement agencies responded to more than 6,500 domestic violence calls last year, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. But many more victims never call law enforcement. Instead, they call the Haven's Outreach Center.
"We have many people call us for years before they ever leave their abusers," Warwick said. "They want to know, 'Is this normal? Is this abuse?' We provide them information, make safety plans for them."
Others who have received help from Emergency Safe House or the Outreach Center or both "continue with support groups for years or they call advocates just to talk," she said.
One woman's story is illustrative.
She was a young Tampa mother, whose life was complicated by epilepsy and then by an abusive husband. She fled only after he threatened to kill her. That night, she slept in a church parking lot, her service dog standing guard.
In the morning, she dialed 211, the confidential information and referral line, which connected her to a local domestic violence shelter. The shelter turned her away because of her dog, a black Labrador retriever trained to warn her of impending seizures. Two other shelters also said no.
Then she called the Haven, which took in her, and the dog.
She arrived with no money, no job, and only a few hurriedly packed clothes. The state had taken her months-old daughter from her and her husband and put the baby in the care of the woman's abusive husband's family. The woman stayed at Emergency Safe House six weeks.
By the time she left, she had a good job and a house to move into — both acquired with the help of the Haven. Soon after, she went to court and got back her daughter.
The Haven's help did not end there.
More than a year later, when the post traumatic stress kicks in, usually late at night, the woman still calls the Outreach Center's 24-hour hotline. What if her now ex-husband shows up at her workplace and causes her to lose her job? Worse, what if he tracks her down and makes good on his threat to kill her? She gets moral support and advice from one of the Outreach Center's advocates.
They always answer within three rings.
The woman is just one of the 17,000 to 20,000 people, including thousands of children, who receive services from the Haven's Outreach Center each year. More than 95 percent of them live in Pinellas County.
The Haven's vision for a new building centers on two big benefits: confidentiality and security.
Said Warwick: "Right now, when people are filling out injunctions, they are sitting out in the middle of the room" — what used to be the house's living room — "or in the kitchen, with everyone walking by."
Because it has no conference room, the current Outreach Center also makes it difficult for domestic violence victims to meet privately with legal advocates, mental health workers, children's protective investigators and sheriff's deputies. This can discourage victims from seeking help.
Worse still is the lack of a sophisticated security system. Abusers have been known to track their victims to the center, putting both the victim and the center's staff at risk. "We do have people show up and threaten to harm staff if we don't tell them where the victim is," Warwick said.
The new Outreach Center, which will be 25 percent larger than the existing building, will include a conference room and greater security. Its entrance will have glass doors, allowing staff to see who is approaching the building, and a "buzz-in" security system, so staff can buzz people into a reception area — a kind of buffer zone — and then, after determining their business is legitimate, can buzz them into the main part of the building.
Other amenities of the new Outreach Center will include:
• A 558-square-foot training room back to back with a lounge area for client and staff use. These two areas will be separated by a folding wall, which can be pushed aside to create one large room for community meetings. This will enable staff to conduct training, community education and prevention programs and similar events onsite. Currently staff must contract for space with other organizations for these types of activities.
• A waiting area where prospective clients can fill out paperwork in safety, as well as a children's play area. In the current building, clients often must wait outside until staff can determine they have legitimate business at the center. This puts them at risk of being spotted and possibly attacked by the abusers they are fleeing.
So far, RCS, the nonprofit umbrella corporation over The Haven, has raised about $615,000 in its $1.4 million capital campaign to replace the Outreach Center. It still needs another $831,000 and will be seeking grants and donations from local governments, private foundations, corporations, private donors — "basically anybody," said Higgins-Joy.
Not only will the new building enhance the Haven's ability to provide vital outreach services to the community, Higgins-Joy said, it also will show its neighborhood, the North Greenwood Revitalization Area, which has rundown homes and vacant businesses, that re-growth and development are possible.
"The building will improve the status of the neighborhood," Higgins-Joy said, "and will allow us to provide more dignified services in a safe and secure environment."
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