Tuesday, December 1, 2020 by Alyssa Weinstein

Human Rights Commission passes recommendation for domestic violence survivors

Late last month, the city’s Human Rights Commission unanimously passed a recommendation to continue providing hotel shelter for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Courtney Santana, a Human Rights commissioner and the CEO of the foundation Survive 2 Thrive, told the Austin Monitor that means struggling Austin-area shelters would continue to get the funding to access available hotel rooms at a 50 percent discounted rate to shelter domestic violence survivors. The recommendation also provides for food, case management for survivors and their children, telecounseling, and forensic exams.

In March, before coronavirus hit Austin, Survive 2 Thrive began the hotel safety net network through a partnership with law enforcement and the Austin Hotel and Lodging Association. Since the beginning of this network, funding has come from the city, St. David’s, United Way for Greater Austin and other organizations.

Santana said before the pandemic, there was already a huge need for extra shelter space to house the survivors of domestic violence, sexual abuse and human trafficking in the Austin area.

According to the commission’s recommendation, 48 percent of the people going to Austin shelters before Covid were being turned away due to lack of capacity and a shortage of beds. A 2019-2020 HHSE report from the Texas Council on Family Violence found that nearly 90 percent of survivors were being turned away.

The need for shelter has skyrocketed during the pandemic and Santana said she is urgently advocating for City Council to review the recommendation.

Complicating matters further, emergency shelters that previously lacked space to serve everyone have reduced their capacity to less than half to avoid spreading the virus among staff and residents, the recommendation stated.

Without shelter, survivors run the risk of facing “chronic homelessness, food insecurity, increased unemployment, and the lack of safety and stability” that comes with having no address, according to the recommendation.

The SAFE Alliance has continued to safely shelter victims of domestic abuse during the pandemic. Julia Spann, co-CEO of the SAFE Alliance, commended the Human Rights Commission for recognizing the need for this recommendation, but told the Monitor there is more work to be done to truly tackle the issue.

“I believe we live in a city that cares about this issue,” Spann said. “We know nationwide that the violence and abuse against women, families and kids is a pandemic on top of a pandemic.”

With people largely confined to their homes these days, domestic abusers have a greater opportunity to do harm while in quarantine with their partners and families, Spann said.

She added that survivors need a comprehensive plan to follow once they are out of their abusive situations, as well as legal advocacy, case management, financial assistance, child services and permanent affordable housing, all of which the SAFE Alliance provides.

Overall, Spann believes the city’s efforts are not sufficient for the needs of survivors. Santana agrees.

“(This recommendation) is just step one in our continuum of care,” Santana said. “So we’re hoping that the city will diversify and continue to fund all of these other nonprofits … [W]e always are going to need shelter, but there has to be other options.”

The confidential SAFEline is available 24/7 to help anyone with sexual or domestic violence, child abuse, trafficking, or parenting support. Advocates speak Spanish and English and can use interpretation services for other languages. Call 512-267-SAFE (7233), text 737-888-7233 or chat at safeaustin.org/chat. For deaf and hard of hearing people, please use VRS.

This story was written by a journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. The Austin Monitor is working in partnership with the UT School of Journalism to teach and publish stories produced by students in the City and County Government Reporting course.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin Human Rights Commission: an advisory committee to members of the Austin City Council. It's purview includes "all matters involving racial, religious or ethnic discrimination."

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