Editor’s Note: Some names in this article have been changed to preserve anonymity.
The landing gear screeches as it strikes the tarmac at Nashville International Airport, the final stop in the 1,700-mile odyssey that has allowed Pamela Crawford, at long last, to escape from Phoenix, Ariz., and the man who used to beat her. The flight has lasted more than four hours, and Pamela is exhausted and anxious. She does not know anybody in Nashville. She has never met the person who will meet her and escort her to the YWCA Women’s Shelter for Domestic Violence.
For months now, Pamela, 28, has been obsessed with her plan to get away from her longtime live-in boyfriend, the man who controlled her life and abused her repeatedly, so severely in one instance that Pamela lost their unborn child. “He was hitting me for things like not straightening the steering wheel when I parked the car,” Pamela recalls. When he bought a gun, she became more frightened than ever. (He used the gun to threaten her “countless times,” Pamela says.)
The gun terrified Pamela, but she figured it could help her in her carefully plotted dash for freedom. When the time was right, she stole the gun and pawned it. Then she made the break, finding her way to a women’s shelter in Phoenix. She did not spend the money she got from hocking the gun. Before long, she knew, she would need it to buy a plane ticket.
With help from the women’s shelter, she made the decision to head for Nashville, a city where neither she nor her boyfriend had any connections. There would be no reason for him to search for her here.
Compared to most other abused women, Pamela seems lucky. Most women arrive at domestic violence shelters with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Many arrive there only because their bruises have been discovered on a hospital emergency room examining table. They often arrive with a police escort. But Pamela arrived in Nashville with at least a few clothes, a little cash, andmost important of alla job, prearranged through the hotel company she worked for in Phoenix. Pamela came to Nashville hoping to start her life over.
In Nashville, however, she learned that she would be able to spend a only few weeks in the Y’s Women’s Shelter. After that, in the city that was to be her safe haven, Pamela learned that she had no place to go.
In all of Nashville, there are only two sheltersthe YWCA Women’s Shelter and the Madison Church of Christ Women’s Shelterthat provide even short-term lodging for women, and their children, who are victims of domestic violence. On any night, those two shelters provide a combined total of only 32 beds.
Meanwhile, the Metro Police Department responded last year to 20,182 calls related to domestic violence. According to Sharon DeBoer, director of the Y Shelter, the Y’s crisis-line workers took 1,822 calls last yearan average of approximately 152 calls each month. In one month last fall, the crisis line handled a staggering 302 calls from women in distress.
Both the Y Shelter and the Madison Church of Christ Shelter are constantly full. As a result, the Y Shelter turned away 272 women last year, simply because no beds were available. According to DeBoer, if those women had come to the Y Shelter, they would have arrived with a total of 156 children in tow. Of the women who do come to Nashville’s two shelters, 40 percent have children. At the Y shelter, each bedroom is furnished with single beds or bunks. Those beds are usually allotted to the adults. Some cribs are available for infants and toddlers. But when the shelter is packed, older children must squeeze in alongside their mothers.
The paucity of emergency housing for abused women and children in Nashville is appalling. But it is every bit as shocking that, for women such as Pamelawomen who have made the initial break from their abusers and who are struggling to rebuild their lives from the ground upNashville offers no sort of transitional shelter at all. Once her time at the emergency shelter is completedstays at the Y shelter are not supposed to extend beyond six weeksthe woman is expected to move on. Space is at a premium. Another woman will always be in line to take her place.
For any abused woman, the escape from her abuser requires an almost superhuman effort. In many cases, the abused woman has been held in the emotional, financial, and physical grip of her abuser. She may have no checking account, no credit references, no friends, and no means of transportation; her self-image may be virtually nonexistent. And yet, once the abused woman has made her initial break, she doesn’t get an orientation course to her new life. The world does not stop to let her catch up. It doesn’t even slow down.
At a critical moment in her life, when she must cope with the still-fresh trauma of her persistent abuse, she faces a maze of blank walls. Almost invariably she finds herself suddenly homeless and jobless. Almost always she is penniless. As a result, many abused women feel they have no option except to return to their abusers. On the average, an abused woman will flee and then return to her abuser seven times before she makes the final break, according to DeBoer.
The Catch-22 cycle is “very discouraging,” says Ruby Smith, director of the Women’s Shelter at Madison Church of Christ. “It pushes [abused women] back into the abusive relationship.” Sometimes the women give up during the early weeks, when at the very least they may be able to find some safety at a domestic violence shelter. At other times, Smith explains, “It will happen one to two months later because the woman’s attempt to build a life doesn’t work for her.” Almost invariably, though, the course comes full circle. “It won’t be long before we are hearing from them again,” Smith says.
Some women never look back, once they have made it out. Far too many others, however, feel overwhelmed by the obstacles of creating a new life, especially when they have children; they figure that, just maybe, if they go back home, they will at least have a fighting chance with the persons who have beat them or emotionally abused them so many times before.
Professionals who deal with abused women on a day-to-day basis in Nashville can suggest plenty of reasons why women return to their abusers: The women don’t have any money; they have neither a job nor any readily evident job skills; they don’t have a car to get them to and from work; they fear for their safety, and for the safety of their children. But high on every list is the fact that Nashville, like far too many other cities of its size, provides no safe, affordable transitional housing for victims of domestic violence.
The Metro Police Department’s Domestic Violence Unit is touted as the best unit of its kind in the nation, perhaps in the world. Indeed, the unit’s track record is impressive: Almost immediately after it was created in 1993, the unit began to look like a godsend. In 1993 in Nashville, more than 25 persons, most of them women, lost their lives as a result of domestic violence. In 1996 the number was down to 15.
Still, with the Domestic Violence Unit handling more than 20,000 incidents last year alone, and with Metro enacting stiffer laws to deal with abusers, Nashville’s two not-for-profit domestic violence shelters are swamped. Because the Domestic Violence Unit is dealing with so many more abuse cases, some of which might previously have gone undiscovered, its success may in fact may be adding to the crunch at the two shelters.
Even if they were not so crowded, the two local shelters would still be only stop-gap measures. In Nashville, where the rate of domestic violence incidents still exceeds the state average, there is no place where abused women can go while making the transition to a more peaceful life. It is as if local hospitals only had emergency rooms. There is no place for the abused woman to heal, receive therapy, and convalesce.
“Transitional housing is not like being in a shelter,” says Ruby Smith of the Madison Church of Christ shelter. “In transitional housing, it’s like the women are in their own home with a support system still working with them.” The Madison shelter, Smith explains, is a self-supporting agency that cannot afford to offer much assistance to women who need a continuing refuge once their initial crises are over. A woman applying for her first job, for example, may find it impossible to pay even the most modest rent. And an affordable apartment, once it’s found, may be located in a neighborhood that presents an entirely new set of dangers. “We can’t find an apartment for less than $450 or $500 a month [for our clients], let alone one that is safe,” Smith says despairingly.
In Minneapolis, Minn., the Harriet Tubman Center receives $100,000 a year in operating support from its county’s budget to support its transitional-housing program. The center’s $6 million center, which was opened in 1994, was built largely with private donations, but $800,000 also came from the state of Minnesota, and the city of Minneapolis contributed an estimated $250,000. Minneapolis continues to support the center each year with a Community Bloc Grant.
Closer to home in Williamson County, My Sister’s House, a domestic violence shelter, receives approximately $10,000 a year from the City of Franklin. “The community has accepted responsibility for stopping domestic violence,” says Vida Stallings, director of My Sister’s House. According to Stallings, the shelter also receives $3,000 a year from the community of Fairview, with a population of approximately 5,000. Williamson County’s Community Housing Partnership is now making plans to break ground for nine housing units, which will be made available, at affordable rents, to women referred by My Sister’s House. Ideally, a woman will be able to purchase a house after she’s lived there for five years.
Mayor Phil Bredesen has been an avid supporter of the Domestic Violence Unit, and he frequently mentioned its impressive track record in his successful reelection campaign in 1995. But Bredesen is cautious about agreeing that the city should plunge into a transitional housing program. He points out that individuals in different circumstances might need different kinds of transitional housing, and he contends that the federal government and nonprofit organizations should be the major players in tackling the problem.
“I think the city has a role [in transitional housing], but I don’t think it should be the major role player,” Bredesen says. “I acknowledge there is a need for transitional housing, but I don’t see the city as a major player. We can’t do everything. We have an obligation to punish those who are doing the abusing.”
“Transitional housing” is usually defined as long-term, temporary housing where a woman can stayfrom six months up to two yearswhile recovering, emotionally and financially, from an abusive relationship. In many transitional housing programs, rent is determined by the woman’s income; in some cases her payments are supplemented with funds from other sources, including the federal government, not-for-profit organizations, and the community at large. Transitional housing must be situated in a secure place that is safe for the woman and for her children. Advocates of transitional housing insist that it makes no sense to take a woman out of one dangerous environment simply to place her in another. Typically, the location of transitional housing is kept secret, just as the locations of domestic violence shelters are not revealed to the general public.
Ideally, transitional housing comes in a variety of sizes, ranging from simple efficiency apartments to small houses for mothers with children. So that the woman can have her best chance for complete recovery, a successful transitional housing program also makes it possible for her, and her children, to receive regular counseling.
Domestic violence counselors argue that transitional housing is a necessity for any abuse victim attempting to rebuild her life. It can provide the sort of safe place that will allow her to go out and find a job, confident that her children will not be in danger while she is away.
When Cheryl Pierce fled her abusive husband in 1987, she took with her their three children, two of whom were still in diapers. She and her husband had been married for eight years; they lived in an upper-middle-income neighborhood and enjoyed plenty of material comforts. But Pierce says that her husband was diagnosed as schizophrenic, and much of his abuse was of the psychological kind. There was seldom a night, she recalls, when he did not put a gun to her head or a knife to her throat. “It was a feeling of complete hopelessness,” she says. There were, however, two instances when he actually beat her. The second time he hit her, Pierce put her children in the car and left.
Pierce left behind an abusive husband, but she also left behind all the security in her life. She had finished only one year of college and had never worked outside the home after her marriage. Her husband, she says, didn’t want her to have a job. Just weeks before she fled, Pierce had suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of his abuse. Now, upon her arrival at the YWCA shelter, she was faced with decisions she had never even imagined.
First, she recalls, there was the “culture shock” of the environment at the shelter. Many of the women around her were black women from low-income situations; everybody was on edge. There was no automatic, picture-perfect “bonding” among the clients, many of whom were fearful and protective of their children. What’s more, life at the shelter was governed by tough rules and regulations. Every woman was expected to help with the housekeeping. Because confidentiality had to be preserved, contact with the outside world was difficult. Pierce found herself signing up for an appointment to use the washer and dryer. There was a strict curfew: 9 p.m. on weeknights; 11 on weekends.
In the midst of all this discipline, Pierce’s emotional life was becoming a roller coaster. She had to face the fact that she had no money and that she could not turn to her own family for help. Her parents, she says, had also been abusive, and she had every reason to suppose that they would side against her with her husband. “They believed that saying ‘I do’ meant staying with a man no matter what,” Pierce says. She was almost incapacitated by the challenges before her. “I never had to go to work before,” she says. “Then there comes this time when you have to go to work. And you have the people at the shelter telling you that it’s time for you to leave. It came to the point that they almost had to kick me out.”
Pierce still remembers the fear and desperation she felt when her time at the shelter was ending and she was forced to face her limited options for housing. DeBoer, who helped Pierce find an apartment, was frank with her: Straight off, she told Pierce that the public housing projects were not even an option for her and her children. Pierce almost laughs when she remembers how DeBoer told her she wouldn’t have lasted “one day” in the projects. But her voice grows somber when she recalls the moments when she wavered, the times when she almost gave in. “I understand why women go back,” Pierce says. “I almost went back. You think to yourself, ‘I can either live in the projects, or I can go back to my abuser. At least I’m safe there some of the time.’ ”
It is hard enough for anybody to find an affordable and safe apartment in Nashville, but the search is even tougher for women who, like Pierce, have been married for several years and may not have any credit references in their own names. Even if a woman does have some credit history, it is extremely risky for her to share it with a potential landlord, since most apartment complexes run credit checks, a process that can give the abuser plenty of hints as to the woman’s whereabouts. If the couple is still married, the abuser has easy access to all information about any credit checks that are run on the woman, including the names and addresses of apartment complexes that request them.
Pierce did manage to find an apartment. She and her children shared it with a woman they had met at the Y shelter. Their only furniture was a queen-size mattress and a couch that the shelter had given to them. Then Pierce began trying to figure out how to make the system work for her. Again and again, she applied for food stamps, but her patience began to wear thin. “They kept losing my file, and they treat you like dirt,” she says, almost spitting out the words. Each time her file was lost, she was required to return to square one and wait for her files to be reprocessed. After her files were lost for the third or fourth time, she says, she quit going back.
To pay for the rent, utilities, and groceries, Pierce began working two jobs, 80 hours a week. Luckily, she didn’t have to pay for daycare, a major expense that turns out to be the downfall of some women attempting to make it on their own. In lieu of paying rent, her apartment mate took care of the children while Pierce worked. Nevertheless, Pierce looks back on those days and wonders how she ever made ends meet. After two long, hard years of divorce hearings and four years of working two jobs, she is now vice president of operations at AACC Security Systems, a home security company.
Pierce seems proud of herself and of her survival. But she insists that, if she had had access to transitional housing, she would not have suffered so much. “I think women could honestly deal with the rest of it if transitional housing were there for them in the beginning,” Pierce says. What’s more, she says she is convinced that more women would attempt to break out of “the cycle of violence if they had somewhere to go after the shelter.”
While she was staying at the domestic violence shelter in Phoenix, Pamela Crawford had little trouble making contact with the federal Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) program. There, she says, an AFDC employee actually visited the shelter to help women determine whether or not they were eligible for assistance. In Nashville, Pamela has discovered, she must visit the welfare offices in person, once to register for assistance and a second time to learn whether she is eligible to receive payments.
Pamela has a hard time keeping those appointments. She does not have a car, and she can’t afford to ask for the time off from work.
And she’s having trouble finding a “safe” apartment that’s in her price range. “Everything is so expensive here,” she says, speaking from a pay phone as the sound of traffic roars in the background. “I left everything behind, so I’m having to replace everything.” Pamela has had the week from hell. “Me and this other girl from the shelter were going to get an apartment together,” she says. “I gave her the money for a down payment and I went to work. I haven’t heard from her since.” She says she has done everything she can to find the other woman, who stole the $500 Pamela had managed to scrape together. As a result of her efforts, she’s missed so much work that she’s lost her job.
It sounds as if her hopes have almost run aground. Exhausted, she’s even called her boyfriend in Phoenix, the man who beat her time and again. “I called him the other day and almost told him to come and get me,” Pamela says. “He told me if he came to get me I would never be able leave again.” Those words reminded her of why she fled. She wavered, she says, but not so much that she told him where she was.
Still, Pamela is homeless, she’s jobless, and, except for walking, she has no means of getting around in a town she does not know. She says she misses her friends and the comforts she knew when she lived at home. She sounds depressed; she says she has always had a job before; because she’s not working, she says, she feels worthless.
Meanwhile, back in Phoenix, Pamela’s abuser is sleeping in his own bed and going to work at his regular job. It seems ironic that society has simply accepted that it is the abused woman who must start over from scratch. “If [the abuser] went to a bank and hit a teller, society wouldn’t say to her, ‘Well, why don’t you just leave your job? Leave your job and walk out with nothing,’ ” says Gena Hull, a 65-year-old survivor of both domestic violence and stalking. “They wouldn’t say that. No, they would come and arrest him and throw him in jail. So why should a woman have to leave her home because someone is hitting her?”
Hull, one of Nashville’s most vocal advocates for the victims of domestic violence, volunteers regularly at the Y shelter, counseling women that they can break the cycle of domestic violence and make a better life for themselves, no matter what the odds. She speaks from experience.
When she was 47, Hull walked out on her abusive husband. When she left, she had no car, no job, and no money. To this day, her message is frank and uncompromising: “When I hear women say, ‘I just can’t start over,’ I say, ‘Oh, yes, you can. No matter how old you are.’ ” But she is also determined in her belief that it shouldn’t be so difficult for a woman to break out of the cycle of violence. Transitional housing, she says, would help. “The period after leaving the shelter can be a very difficult time for a woman,” Hull says. “You just don’t get back on your feet overnight. It took me two years before I could go out and look for a job, and I had support from my friends and family.”
In many ways, Nashville deserves its reputation as a “model city” in the fight against domestic violence. Sgt. Mark Wynn of the Metro Nashville Domestic Violence Unit is proud of the unit’s work, but he says he is concerned the public does not understand that a woman’s decision to leaver her abuser is not just an eventit is the beginning of a process. Wynn’s own childhood history included domestic violence; he says he is well aware of the stresses to which abused women are subjected. What’s more, he says he knows about the lack of support available to a woman once the unit has done its initial job.
“Every piece supports the other,” Wynn says. “The police are responsible for taking the woman out of harm’s way and bringing a strong case against the perpetrator in court. The court system must hand down strong convictions. It’s a chain of events.”
In its drive to convict more abusers, Metro’s Domestic Violence Unit has been aided by a new “domestic violence probable cause” ruling by the General Sessions Court and by the district attorney’s aggressive “no drop” policy. Under the “probable cause” ruling, a police officer may arrest an abuser if the officer is convinced that abuse has taken place; the officer does not have to wait for the victim to press charges. The “no drop” policy permits officers to proceed with investigating a domestic violence case, and to bring it to prosecution, with or without the cooperation of the victim.
In addition, an abuse victim may now obtain an order of protection, an updated version of the more familiar restraining order. Under the terms of an order of protection, an accused abuser must stay away from his alleged victim at all times. If the alleged abuser violates the order, he can be arrested on the spot. No trial or hearing is required. According to a clerk of the General Sessions Court, 2,099 orders of protection were issued by the court in 1996.
Meanwhile, the crackdown on domestic violence has put still more pressure on the city’s “weakest link,” says the Y shelter’s Sharon DeBoer. She argues that, at least in part because of the Domestic Violence Unit’s success, shelter space and transitional housing space are more sorely needed than ever. “While we have pushed the police to do a better job, now we can’t keep up.”
Faced with too few beds and an increasing number of abuse victims, local shelters work closely with the Police Department. They make sure that the police know when there simply is no more room. In life-or-death situations, police officers take immediate action to get the battered woman out of danger. Then the local shelters attempt to find some safe place for the woman to go. Sometimes family members and friends provide assistance, but if all else fails Nashville’s shelters must turn to sister shelters in neighboring counties.
Outside Davidson County, there are eight shelters within driving distance of Nashville, DeBoer says. Some of those shelters are over an hour and a half away, and some of them are so small that they are run by only one or two volunteers. Last year, however, those eight shelters housed more Davidson County woman than the two Nashville shelters combined. With so many women being transferred to sister shelters outside the county, women from Davidson County are putting a serious strain on the other shelters, DeBoer says.
There is talk about a new home for the YWCA shelter. According to Bredesen, Metro is investigating the possibility of donating the land on which it would be built. Metro Council member Chris Ferrell, who has been active in the domestic violence movement since the early 1990s, says he has been attempting for over a year to help make the new shelter a reality. According to Ferrell, tentative plans for the new shelter incorporate space for both short-term and long-term shelter. Even those plans, however, have yet to reach the drawing board.
In the meantime, advocates for domestic violence victims have plenty of suggestions as to how the community might pitch in. General Sessions Court Judge Gale Robinson suggests that a foster care program might be set up to provide lodging for abused women and children until they are able to find permanent housing. Cheryl Pierce suggests that there are plenty of senior citizens who are capable of caring for an abuse victim’s children during the day. The payment for the baby-sitting service would low enough, she suggests, that it would be affordable for the mother, and it would not threaten the senior citizen’s Social Security benefits. “I would have liked to have known there was some sweet old grandmother taking care of my children while I was at work,” says Pierce.
According to Sgt. Mark Wynn, hotels and motels in other cities have agreed to open a limited number of rooms where battered women can stay, sometimes for as long as a month, when the domestic violence shelters are full. Other domestic violence counselors suggest that local companies might donate houses, apartments, or land for transitional housing. They hope that more community organizations will develop programs like the shelter operated by the Madison Church of Christ.
For the moment, however, all those suggestions are merely wishful thinking. Meanwhile, after four months in Nashville, Pamela is still trying to make it on her own.
She still has to make her calls from a pay phone, but she insists that things are looking up. Sometimes, through the rumbling background noise of the traffic, she really does sound happier.
“I just started working,” she says during the course of one phone call. “Now that I’m working, I feel better about myself.” She hasn’t called her former boyfriend, or even thought about calling him, since her week from hell. She says she has better things to think about, like an upcoming concert by country singer Wade Hayes, whom she describes as “the cowboy of my dreams.” She is still amazed by a recent snowfall, the sort of thing she never got to see in Phoenix.
She announces that, at least for the moment, she has a place to live. A friend from the YMCA shelter has agreed to let Pamela stay in her apartment until she can save up enough money to go out on her own. Pamela says she is confident that that goal doesn’t seem as unattainable as it once did. “We’re doing good stuff now,” she says.
Then, just weeks later, there’s a different kind of news about Pamela. She hasn’t been in touch, but one of her former roommates says that the new year has been tough for Pamela. During early January, she was robbed. It happened in broad daylight, while she walking back to her apartment, a place where she thought, finally, she would be safe.
Pamela was unhurt during the robbery, but her last $200 was stolen. She had just cashed her paycheck. Now, once again, she would have to figure out how to pay the rent.
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