Domestic Violence Victims Turned Away


County turns away 2,500 requests every year, advocates say

Erin O. stands outside the Los Gatos Library on January 16, 2017. She lost her home, children and finances after her partner froze access and lived on sofas for a year. Photo by Veronica Weber.

It doesn’t matter if they are rich or poor, longtime residents or new immigrants. Thousands of domestic-violence survivors in Santa Clara County are in the same boat: When they decide to leave their abusers, many find there is no shelter to take them in.

In Santa Clara County, domestic-violence shelters can take in just 63 people at a time and turn away nearly 2,500 requests annually, advocates say. But such shelters can mean the difference between victims rebuilding their lives and returning to their abusers.

Emergency shelters for survivors of domestic violence offer critical services not found in homeless shelters, such as trauma counseling. And unlike homeless shelters, the addresses of domestic violence shelters are confidential to protect victims from their abusers.

“It’s a sanctuary; it ensures that it is truly a respite for the individual,” said Tanis Crosby, chief executive officer of YWCA Silicon Valley, which runs an emergency shelter, crisis hotline, transitional-housing program, advocacy and other support programs.

For those who are lucky enough to find a bed in an emergency shelter, the stays are short. State funding allows up to a 30-day stay with the possibility of a 15-day extension for emergency shelters, a model that is designed for emergency situations. In that time victims are coping with their trauma, getting restraining orders, working on immigration issues and accessing public financial assistance.

Many victims cycle from one shelter to another as they try to pull their lives together. The process can take years, even after finding transitional housing, which also is difficult in Silicon Valley, advocates said.

Most domestic-violence shelters and services are in south Santa Clara County. There are no such facilities in the county north of Sunnyvale to serve Palo Alto, Mountain View and Los Altos residents, according to advocates.

Yet in Palo Alto, domestic violence is “very common,” said Katie Ritchey, founder of Palo Alto-based Deborah’s Palm, a women’s resource center. Victims of domestic violence come to Deborah’s Palm “almost every day,” she said.

“It is always there. They beat around the bush; they ask for other services, and 10 to 30 minutes later they tell you they are experiencing domestic violence,” she said.

Silicon Valley’s stressful and expensive environment “works as a catalyst” for conflict within homes, Ritchey said.

“What’s interesting about Palo Alto is that (abuse) is very well hidden, very well disguised. The woman is often fiscally more dependent. The domestic violence can be overt or covert; the victim can be verbally trapped. It is power over position, where the man is very controlling,” she said.

Deborah’s Palm does not have a shelter, but it refers clients to shelters, she said.

“It frustrates me that we don’t have the capacity of services we need in an affluent community,” Ritchey said.

More problematic for Palo Alto area victims than being sheltered far from their homes is their sense of being misunderstood in the shelters. There’s an assumption that victims from wealthy areas are in less need — a presumption that seems bolstered when they drive up in the Mercedes they have been living in or walk in wearing their expensive clothes, she said.

But these victims can be as impoverished as their counterparts. Abusive partners often have the power, money and attorneys to hide assets and cut off access, said Ruth Patrick, executive director of WomenSV, a Los Altos advocacy organization.

WomenSV helps victims of affluent abusers. When it comes to emergency housing, Patrick has searched far outside of the county for an open bed.

“I have spent up to eight hours with survivors on the phone calling shelters. Every now and then I find a space, usually in Oakland,” she said.

“It’s only slightly less impossible to find a space during the week than it is on the weekend,” she added.

Patrick estimated that about 60 to 70 percent don’t have another place to stay that have no relatives or friends with whom they would be safe.

But giving people shelter so that they can then work on their problems is critical.

Erin O., a client of Patrick’s, said she was fortunate to have friends and family who helped her. Even then, progress toward a stable life has been slow. She spent a year couch surfing.

“I had just one suitcase of clothes, and 2 1/2 years later, that’s still all I have,” she said.

She was able to force the sale of her and her former partner’s house through civil court and now rents a room in a friend’s home.

“That’s what saved me,” she said.

Sandra Hernandez, the shelter coordinator for YWCA Silicon Valley, said that housing saves some victims’ lives. Because of the lack of housing and basic necessities for survival, victims can return to their abusers, some with fatal consequences.

“Some women don’t make it; we never get to meet them,” Hernandez said. “It is very, very difficult to find a place in the county.”

Maria De Lourdes Cordova Diaz’s journey emphasizes the difficulties posed by a lack of housing. Cordova has utilized every shelter in Santa Clara County.

Cordova first received help from a local church when she was living in Ohio. She lived in a series of shelters there for nearly two years. To earn money for food, she cleaned houses with a woman she met at the shelter.

In September 2014, two years after her ordeal began, she moved to the Bay Area to find relatives with the help of a plane ticket from the church. But three months later and eight months pregnant she again found herself in what she called a bad domestic situation. This time, she contacted a crisis line.

Community Overcoming Relationship Abuse (CORA) in San Mateo County did not have any available beds, but the staff put her up in a hotel and gave her food until a shelter bed became available through another agency. She arrived at the YWCA shelter on Dec. 29, 2014.

“I was completely alone,” she said.

CORA employees called the YWCA, who got Cordova into their shelter, where she received counseling and had her baby. And for the first time, she began to understand what had been happening to her since coming to the U.S.

“I learned that I had experienced domestic violence. I know what that means now. I was thinking everything was my fault,” she said.

Cordova said that Hernandez, who was a shelter advocate at that time, helped her even after Cordova had to move to other shelters.

“She said, ‘You can do it. You are so smart. You have a lot of resources, so you don’t feel alone,'” Cordova recalled.

A year ago Cordova moved into transitional housing through a “rapid re-housing” program that pays for her rent for up to two years. The program allows her to save money and build a stable economic base and career so she can take over the payments. She has gotten a work permit and has enrolled in San Jose City College, where she takes English as a Second Language classes. She is working on getting a U visa, which is granted to victims of crimes who testify in court. She has a car and now makes more money as an Uber driver than she did as a janitor, her previous job.

But she aspires to achieve much more. Cordova is slowly starting her own baby-clothing business. And she was the 2016 recipient of the YWCA Silicon Valley’s Empowerment Award for her bravery and advocacy.

“My goal is to be a psychologist,” she said.

Hernandez said the YWCA’s rapid re-housing program supports 21 domestic violence survivors through funding provided by the U.S. Office of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and local donors. Such programs are used by some agencies to help homeless persons to achieve stability more quickly and could be replicated if more funding was available, advocates said.

Cordova said finding a landlord who would accept the rapid re-housing vouchers was difficult. She finally found a place by sharing a two-bedroom home with another woman in transitional housing.

Hernandez said that in the current housing market, people who have Section 8 federal subsidies can’t find housing. Landlords don’t want to be locked into the rents while real estate is skyrocketing. The survivors must move far away from jobs and resources.

“Some go to Fresno, Stockton, Manteca,” she said.

Other organizations running shelters also have found it difficult to find shelter space and transitional housing for their clients. San Jose-based Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI) runs a 12-bed shelter, the Asian Women’s Home, which services 110 survivors a year, said Melissa Luke, domestic-violence program manager. The organization works largely with Asian immigrants who speak a number of languages and may face immigration issues, particularly when an abuser uses immigration status as a tool for abuse. Partners won’t tell victims if they have filed papers to make their status legal and may threaten them by saying they will be deported or jailed if they try to leave.

On top of sky-high rents, many survivors also face a lack of affordable child care. County statistics state that about 50 percent of those housed in domestic violence shelters are children who come with a parent. While child care is an issue for everyone in the valley, those living in shelters have an especially difficult time.

“It’s impossible as a single parent. How are they going to take care of their child while working on trying to find stable housing?” Luke said.

There is a glimmer of hope. County voters approved Measure A on Nov. 8, a $950 million bond designed to fund the acquisition or improvement of an estimated 5,000 affordable-housing units and give assistance to 1,000 first-time homebuyers. But how much of the funding would go specifically to house survivors of domestic abuse has not been determined, advocates said.

Luke and Crosby said they are hopeful that the county can prioritize housing for persons fleeing domestic violence.

“We know that this is a critical public-safety issue,” Crosby said.

She and Luke said while the housing supply is an immediate issue, there is also a greater need for early intervention, awareness programs in schools regarding abuse, batterer intervention and other “flexible support” programs. Such programs can help keep the family safe and ensure none have to move out of their homes.

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