Like many domestic violence shelters, Henderson House in McMinnville receives federal funding through the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the act passed in 1994 to ensure funding to help women who are escaping domestic violence or have experienced sexual assault. Jan 31 is a major quarterly deadline for submitting VAWA financial reports, and throughout the month of January, executive director Anne Falla usually contacts helpful federal government employees to make sure she is documenting everything correctly on the report.
But this month, Falla’s calls have gone unanswered. That's because US Department of Justice employees who assist with distributing VAWA dollars are furloughed during the federal government shutdown.
“That’s a huge chunk of money that a lot of us get,” Falla said about VAWA, which Congress failed to renew before the shutdown started last month.
Unanswered questions about filing her reports is just one part of the general uncertainty that Falla, and other Oregon domestic violence shelter employees, are feeling amidst the government shutdown.
Most shelters receive funding from a variety of federal, state, county, city, and private sources, but VAWA is one of the key consistent funding streams. They also rely on federal funding from the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA), which covers legal expenses for domestic violence survivors, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which covers survivors’ temporary housing fees.
The funding is typically given through reimbursement, meaning domestic violence shelters front the costs and then invoice the appropriate federal agency. But during the government shutdown, there is no guarantee that those invoices are being received, or when they will be reimbursed.
“The shutdown is certainly making everyone nervous,” said Rebecca Nickels, who is the interim executive director at the Bradley Angle shelter in Portland. “There’s a lot of uncertainty.”
Bradley Angle receives monthly HUD funding, but has not been able to submit invoices for reimbursement. The shelter has enough reserve funding to front the costs itself—for now. Nickels estimated that Bradley Angle will be able to self-fund all of its services for about three months, but it will be pulling from the budget usually used for things not covered by public funding, like keeping the lights on in its office building.
“When we front the costs of government spending, that is where we have to pull back,” she said.
Raphael House, another shelter in Portland, receives its federal funding through the state, and so it has not experienced any issues during the federal shutdown. But in a statement provided to the Mercury, programs and services director Emmy Ritter said that "we are concerned about the impacts of a prolonged government shutdown—not only how this might influence our funding down the line, but also how it impacts the wider safety net that survivors rely on."
"We connect survivors with a variety of critical services and systems, including those that provide food stamps, legal and immigration assistance, housing, et cetera," Ritter continued. "This is a complex situation, and it’s not yet clear how each will be affected."
In Washington County, the Domestic Violence Resource Center is fronting the cost of services that should be paid for with federal dollars. Executive director Rowie Taylor said it helps that the center just had its annual year-end donation campaign, but she isn’t sure how long those private donations will sustain its services.
“If this came in July, I don’t know if I could say the same thing,” Taylor said. “[The shutdown is] going to impact everybody if it keeps going. … I can’t begin to imagine which services go and which services stay.”
While shelters in the Portland metro region are scraping by, those located in other parts of the state might not be so lucky. According to Jonathan Gates, a spokesperson for the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence, the shutdown is “disproportionately affecting” shelters in more rural, remote areas, because they rely more heavily on public funding.
Before joining Henderson House, Falla worked for three years in the social services department of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, a Native American tribal community that has a reservation in Yamhill and Polk Counties. She said that when she worked there, 100 percent of the budget for helping survivors of sexual and domestic violence came from VAWA.
Falla also said that other shelters and advocacy groups she’s familiar with have begun furloughing one or two employees to save on expenses during the shutdown.
At Henderson House, extra funds are quickly dwindling, and Falla has started to think about where she can cut expenses if the shutdown continues for much longer—but it’s hard to find a solution that doesn’t create a domino effect.
The shelter is currently undergoing a remodel, so she might put off paying the contractors for a month or two, though she doesn’t want to shortchange a local construction company. She could also ask her donations coordinator to take a few weeks off unpaid, but then there might not be enough warm winter coats to give to people staying at the shelter.
“It’s really hard to think about where to trim the fat,” Falla said, “because there’s no fat to trim.”