DC Domestic Violence Agency Struggles Amid Shutdown

In Congress' own backyard, the ripple effect of the shutdown has taken its toll on a variety of government services Washingtonians rely on. One organization that's a stone's throw away from the Capitol has been left scrambling to continue serving its clients.

The beginning of Domestic Violence Awareness month this year coincided with the beginning of the shutdown - and the end of federal funding for domestic abuse agencies.

Natalia Otero is the executive director of DC Survivors and Advocates For Empowerment, or DC SAFE, Washington's only immediate response service for survivors of domestic abuse. For the past two weeks, her agency has struggled to continue running without local or federal funding, relying solely on private donations, which usually account for only 20 percent of its budget.

"I think the uncertainty is really the concern for everybody," Otero said. "Everybody's scrambling to figure out what the test is going to be and whether or not they're going to have enough cash to function and for how long."

Because October also marks the beginning of DC SAFE's fiscal year, the agency missed a $250,000 quarterly grant on Oct. 1. And even if the shutdown ends by the Oct. 17 debt ceiling deadline, funds could be held up until the beginning of November, Otero said.

"Without the federal aid, SAFE will not be able to provide shelter, emergency lock changes at victims' homes, staff our hotline, nor have court advocates to help victims obtain restraining orders to ensure their safety," the agency's Oct. 5 update read.

However, to Otero, cutting services is not acceptable. "For us, it really is just not an option [to cut services]. We have to figure out how to continue - even on a skeletal staff - with these operations because a lot of the clients that come to us are in dire straits," she said.

SAFE aids 5,000 clients annually, and, this Tuesday alone, 54 individuals came through SAFE to file civil protection orders, Otero said. Overnight, 17 families, including 48 children, stayed at its shelter, and it responded to 15 calls from police officers.

To Otero, those numbers seem higher than the average October. "At this time last year, we did not have that many clients walking in," she said.

This perceived uptick could, as Otero suggested, stem from the disruption of federal services that many of SAFE's clients rely on. During the shutdown, survivors of domestic abuse have had trouble requesting emergency food stamps or immediate public housing transfers to escape their abusers.

"Even though some of these agencies are open and functioning in theory, when people are furloughed … well, that disrupts the system, and it's the ripple effect," Otero said.

"And the longer that this continues, the harder it is for somebody who's already in a population that's underserved, for them to get out of that cycle," she continued.

Otero estimated that most agencies have the funds to continue running for 15 days to a month. "I think there will come a time around the middle of the month where things are going to start affecting these organizations, and they're going to have to make tough decisions," she said.

President Obama emphasized the importance of these services in a press release recognizing the beginning of Domestic Violence Awareness Month on Sept. 30, the last day the government was running.

"Ending violence in the home is a national imperative that requires vigilance and dedication from every sector of our society," he said. "We must continue to stand alongside advocates, victim service providers, law enforcement, and our criminal justice system as they hold offenders accountable and provide care and support to survivors."

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