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Hard times pack Tampa Bay domestic violence shelters

Battered women seeking refuge at the Haven of RCS in Clearwater historically have stayed an average of 25 or 26 days.

These days, it's closer to 45 days. That's all the shelter allows. And some are asking for more.

"It used to be that people would find jobs and get on their feet and find a place to live," said Christine Warwick, who directs the Haven for the nonprofit agency Religious Community Services.

Now "we end up keeping people longer," she said. That makes it harder for the Haven to take in others.

The bad economy is swamping Tampa Bay domestic violence shelters with victims of abuse. As the recession pushes more families out of work and into foreclosure, experts worry they are seeing more domestic violence.

At the Spring in Hillsborough County, the number of women seeking help went from the usual 90 to 95 per month to 196 in October. And the stories they tell are more violent.

"One would assume that one thing driving this is increased stress over the economy," said Joanne Olvera Lighter, the Spring's president. "Because domestic battery is about power and control, when you're standing on a shrinking iceberg of what you can control, some people might tend to lash out."

But while financial stress may play a role, shelter administrators say it no more causes abuse than alcohol or drug abuse does.

"Abusers are abusers before this," Warwick said. "Plenty of people lose their jobs and don't abuse their spouses."

That said, problems with money and housing can exacerbate domestic violence:

• Violence can escalate when abusers lose jobs and spend more time at home around their victims.

• Victims who lose jobs might be blamed — and attacked — as a result. Conversely, if victims take on more work to support the family, their abusers might suspect they are having affairs.

• If a family is losing its home anyway, then victims might decide then to leave an abusive relationship.

• Once in a shelter, it's harder to leave because affordable housing and jobs are scarce.

In October, the Haven saw 34 victims come in — twice as many as in October 2007.

In south Pinellas, the shelter run by Community Action Stops Abuse has 30 beds. But these days it's housing 35 or 36 women and children, CASA executive director Linda Osmundson said.

"Oftentimes, we can't get someone out of our shelter in 45 days because there's no place for them to live," she said.

Reaching the end of her stay, one woman even talked of going to Pinellas Hope's tent city for the homeless, said Shawn Veazey, CASA's shelter coordinator.

For one resident of the Haven, finding a job has been the biggest challenge.

Amber — the Times is not using her full name to protect her security — said she ended up at the Haven in late October after the man she was living with pinned her down and hit her.

With money from a state domestic violence victim relocation fund, she could put down a deposit on a one-bedroom apartment in another county. The new place is near a hospital and a nursing home, and she plans to take a test to become a certified nursing assistant later this month.

But finding work to help her make the transition was harder.

Amber had been laid off from a temporary factory job, then lost another in a dispute about overtime. She couldn't drive, but she applied to every place she could walk to from the shelter.

After weeks of looking and repeated brushoffs, she got a part-time job bartending.

"It was really hard," she said. "If it wasn't for this job, I would still be stuck there."

• • •

Pinellas Park police Officer Bill Holmes recalls being called to a home near the former ParkSide Mall one night a few months ago.

Both husband and wife had lost their jobs. They had stopped paying the mortgage, and their home was in foreclosure. Their 6-year-old daughter told Holmes how she watched her father shove her mother onto the bed and choke her.

"I could just see the stress on both of them," said Holmes, the vice chairman of Pinellas County's Domestic Violence Task Force.

Locally, there are signs domestic violence is on the rise.

Compared to 2007, filings for domestic violence injunctions were up nearly 6 percent in Pinellas County and 12 percent in Hernando County through October. They had fallen slightly in Hillsborough and Pasco.

Victims advocates say the filings are a good way to track trends in abuse because many victims never call law enforcement.

At times, numbers offer a mixed picture.

In Tampa and St. Petersburg, domestic crime is down about 8 percent in each city so far this year. Reports likewise have fallen at the Pinellas and Hillsborough sheriff's offices.

But in Clearwater, domestic crimes were up more than 9 percent for the first nine months of the year compared with the same months of 2007.

In Largo, police officers wrote 379 reports related to domestic violence from July through October. That's up from 300 for the same months last year.

And consider these statistics from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office:

Overall, the number of domestic violence reports deputies wrote through October fell about 3 percent compared with last year.

But the number of domestic violence calls dispatched suggests deputies are getting busier.

During September, October and the first half of November, deputies were dispatched to 12.8 percent more such calls than during the same weeks of 2007.

• • •

For shelters, the bad economy hurts two ways.

While demand for their services is up, funding is down.

At CASA, the agency has a $3.7-million budget this year, and expects to run a $50,000 deficit. Sponsorships for a big fundraiser, its Peace Breakfast on Wednesday, are down a bit.

"And we need to be up," Osmundson said, "because we've lost money other places."

Meanwhile, other social service agencies are coping with budget cuts, too, so they're less able to help line up day care and other services victims need.

"We have had to give more extensions," said Lynn Needs, director of the Salvation Army's 32-bed shelter in Pasco County. "Six weeks is not a lot of time to get economically stable right now. … Sometimes they don't even have an ID when they come to see us."

Sadly, help does not appear to be on the way.

"We say it at almost every meeting: It's only going to get worse, and our services are getting cut," said Wendy Loomas, the chairwoman of the Pinellas County Domestic Violence Task Force. "If there are fewer of us who are able to help and do the work, then people are going to have fewer places to turn."

Richard Danielson can be reached at danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.

Domestic violence injunctions

January through October

County20072008
Pinellas2,9933,163
Hillsborough4,3224,311
Pasco1,7541,737
Hernando548614


Fast facts

Domestic violence hotlines

Pinellas

• The Haven of RCS

(727) 442-4128

• CASA

(727) 895-4912, ext. 1

Hillsborough

• The Spring of Tampa Bay

(813) 247-7233

Pasco

• Salvation Army Domestic Violence Program of West Pasco

(727) 856-5797

• Sunrise of Pasco County (East Pasco)

(352) 521-3120

Hernando

• Dawn Center of Hernando County

(352) 799-0657

Hard times pack Tampa Bay domestic violence shelters 12/06/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 8, 2008 11:20am]
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