Running on Empty 

Women's Shelter Shortage Forces Victims to Coffee Shops

THE CHOICES FOR WOMEN fleeing domestic violence in Portland are grim. For 65 percent of calls seeking shelter last month, the Portland Women's Crisis Line (PWCL) staff were unable to find a free bed. When there are no family or friends to put them up, women are told to find refuge in surprising places: 24-hour coffee shops, the PDX airport lobby, and even hospital waiting rooms.

"Having a car is an ideal situation because they can just park it somewhere well lit and stay there overnight," says Courtney Dahmen, program coordinator for the PWCL. "Someone who has left an abusive situation and is calling from the side of the street, if there are no shelters open, then they have to find somewhere they can stay overnight and try to connect with services later."

Obviously, coffee shops and cars should not be serving as the city's de facto domestic violence shelters. Searching for places to put up Portland women, the PWCL calls shelters in five counties three times a day. But there are not enough spaces for all the women in need—local shelters and the PWCL counted 823 turnaways last June, a 48 percent increase in shelter shortage compared to the same month in 2008.

When shelter space is not an option, the PWCL has emergency motel vouchers. But they can only cover 15 nights a month among their average 2,100 calls. The situation is actually better than advocates feared it would be, heading into the state budget crunch.

"Even the Republicans understood that real public safety is about more than just building more and more prisons," says Representative Chip Shields, who successfully led the fight to keep state domestic violence funding intact while politicians cut 20 percent from most other programs.

But private donations and grant money have spiraled—to bridge a $50,000 budget hole at the PWCL, everyone including the executive director is filling in answering the phones because cutting services would mean tragedy on the other end of the line. With once reliable grants and donors dried up, the PWCL is changing course and going grassroots: Their current campaign is looking for 700 people to donate $7 a month.

Fay Schuler at the Salvation Army's women and children's shelter says the crisis line and shelter system works wonderfully when there is enough space. One woman currently in the shelter fled while her husband was in the shower and happened to call when the shelter had a bed open.

"The crisis line provided her with a cab voucher and within hours she was safe and in the shelter," says Schuler. But often, the story is much longer, she says, involving days or weeks of couch surfing and nights spent ordering coffee at cafés.

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