Agencies face tough times filling needs

A surge of federal stimulus money may throw the state’s domestic violence centers a lifeline, but advocates are wary of how long they can hang on.

Social service agencies are getting a double-whammy in times like these, said Dawn Reams, executive director of the Bridges Domestic and Sexual Violence Support Centers in Milford and Nashua.

On one hand, the agency is fielding “more intense” requests for help and shelter, Reams said. Then, they’re staying at Bridges for longer because housing isn’t affordable and finding employment is difficult.

On the other, private donations and fundraising dollars are down, and grants from towns are being slashed, too, Reams said. So while they’re dealing with more knocks on the door, the agency expects to cut programs, staff or some combination within the next month.

“I’m in my 12th year, and it’s devastating to see all the progress we’ve made, to get to where we are, and to take steps backward is really painful,” she said.

Social Services Survey

The problem is affecting domestic violence shelters statewide, said Grace Mattern, executive director of The New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, an umbrella organization to Bridges and a dozen other centers across the state.”We need to make sure we provide adequate funding to the network of 24-hour sexual assault and domestic violence service agencies,” Mattern said. “You don’t want someone to finally make that step -‘Yes I’ve been raped,’ or ‘Yes I’m a victim of abuse,’ without someone there to answer that phone call and help strategize what the next best steps for her would be.”

The coalition’s total operating budget is $5 million, Mattern said, of which 73 percent comes from the federal government; 23 percent from the state; and 4 percent in private donations.

More than $4 million of its total spending supports programs and direct services to clients in the member agencies.

Last year, Mattern said, the coalition took a $60,000 hit in federal funds. This year should be different.

The federal stimulus includes $325 million for victim services, Mattern said. Of that, $175 million is grant money to be doled out to states based on population, and another $150 million is for transitional housing funds and other victims of crime programs.

>>Social services in New Hampshire<< At this point, Mattern said, there's no indication of how much New Hampshire will get. Even so, what trickles down is likely to have strings attached, and it will be a one-time boost that could keep programs up and layoffs down - but only for now, Mattern said. "I'm hopeful, but I don't know," Reams said. "It think it's one-time money: nothing that will sustain us long-term." Each year for the past six, the number of new Bridges clients has grown 15 percent to 20 percent, Reams said, topping out at a total of 2,200 in 2008. The organization has just 12 beds: 10 for emergency, short-term use and two for longer-term, transitional living. The stimulus money will probably have to be spent on certain things, and adding beds probably won't be on the list, Mattern said. Even if it were, adding space wouldn't be sustainable under an 18-month spending schedule. Who would staff it after that, she asked. And yet, both Reams and Mattern expect more people to seek help as the economic crisis looms. Reams and Mattern were clear in stating that economic woes don't cause domestic violence, but it can be an aggravating factor. Unemployment, for example, has been shown as a risk factor for re-offending. "If you're already an abusive controlling person, and there's more stress in your life, more conflict, those negative behaviors are going to be exacerbated," Mattern said. Bridges doesn't turn people away, so it turns to sister organizations for help, but they're at the breaking point, too. Agencies will sometimes turn to the state's justice department for help, occasionally in the form of hotel vouchers or other safe alternatives.