CUMBERLAND, R.I. — He was drinking again. She didn’t need to see the empty bottles or cans; she knew by the way he spoke to her and how he slurred his words. His eyes looked angry, she recalled, and his breath smelled of alcohol.
She wasn’t having it this time. Her son, who just turned 18 this year and is still in high school, was with his paternal grandmother. He was safe. But she needed to get her daughter, now 13, out of there.
She had a bag packed for each of them. Her sneakers were tied tight when she quietly called 911 asking for an officer to arrive at their home in West Warwick. She’d whisper to the operator that she needed to leave her own home, but wanted to do so safely.
That Saturday morning in late June was when Elizabeth finally left the man she spent the last 13 years with (the Globe is referencing her by her middle name to protect her identity as she fears retaliation from her previous partner). For years, she had been the one to take care of the household. She helped her ex get custody of his 10-year-old nephew years ago, who had abusive and violent tendencies toward girls. Elizabeth said now, he’s done a “complete 180″ after dedicating her time raising him and her other two kids.
Despite her dedication, her ex’s controlling behavior got worse. She started having to ask permission to visit her family or even go to the store. He threw a chair at her on a number of occasions. He told her daughter that he was “going to punch your mommy in the face.”
He even told her daughter that “her mom might not wake up in the morning.”
“I had to make a judgement call that Saturday. It was not a safe situation and we had to leave,” said Elizabeth. “I grew up being abused. I watched my dad beat my mom up all the time. I don’t want my kids to see that. And I want my daughter to know that women should be respected and treated right.”
So they left.
But because she’s been on Social Security Disability Insurance for the last two years, on a fixed income of $560 each month, she hasn’t had enough to get an apartment or even change the oil in her old Jeep. She gets food stamps to help put dinner on the table, but money is tight. It’s been hard to even do laundry.
They stayed in a hotel through a temporary program paid for by the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness. But that program ended after 20 days, and they had to turn to a friend and double up in his tiny, one-bedroom apartment in Cumberland. She and her daughter live in the bedroom and he sleeps on the couch. (She said some nonprofits have offered them a place at a mass shelter, but because she has an autoimmune deficiency, she’s scared to contract COVID-19.)
“My daughter needs stability. She’s getting in trouble at school and even got a detention. That’s not my kid. She’s a good girl,” she said.
But Elizabeth’s story isn’t rare in Rhode Island, according to Vanessa Volz, executive director of Sojourner House, which is a domestic and sexual violence nonprofit in Providence.
Even before the pandemic, the organization didn’t have the capacity in its shelters and units. And since the pandemic began, calls to the 24/7 hotline increased by 30 percent. Their rental assistance programs, before the pandemic, would provide approximately $30,000 in aid to their clients, all of whom are survivors. But in the last fiscal year, which ended June 30, they helped more than 250 households, equating to $550,000 worth of rental assistance.
“And we still didn’t meet the demand... It has been a long haul,” said Volz. “We worked hard before the pandemic. But the pandemic has caused us to work in a way that has never been done before. It’s completely overwhelming.”
“Housing is important. But housing with supportive services is crucial,” she said. “These survivors have intense, generational trauma. They grew up with it and then they’re living with it as adults.”
The situation is similar at the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence, or RICADV. According to the Domestic Violence Counts Report for Rhode Island, which is compiled by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, on a single day last September, there were 584 victims served in one day, looking for refuge in emergency shelters, transitional housing, counseling, legal advocacy, and children’s support groups. And 58 percent of the requests for emergency shelter or housing were unmet.
“We have babies being born in shelters. That shouldn’t be happening. We need to invest in housing, but we also need to prioritize domestic violence victims,” said Tonya King, the executive director of RICADV. She said domestic violence is the leading cause for homelessness among women, and that the length of emergency shelter stays increased by 221 percent in Rhode Island during the pandemic.
Rhode Island has yet to spend the $1.13 billion in relief funding from the federal government, and housing advocates have called on Governor Dan McKee to use $500 million of it for housing, which had become a problem well before the pandemic. But in his “down payment” plan, which uses 10 percent of the federal funds, the governor allocated $38.5 million for child care, $32 million for small businesses, and just $29 million for housing, including $1.5 million for emergency situations.
Cortney Nicolato, president and chief executive of the United Way of Rhode Island, said like Elizabeth, “so many Rhode Islanders are just one crisis away.”
“There’s women out there that are making the strong, bold, and courageous move to leave their abuser. But then they do, and often are left on the streets,” said Nicolato. “We need to be better as a state.”
Nicolato saw the governor’s “down payment plan” and said she was pleased to see that funds were set aside for child care and long-term housing needs, but called for funds to be released for nonprofits that are caring for those experiencing homelessness immediately.
“Small business is vast, and should include nonprofits. It’s nonprofits that have helped these Rhode Islanders throughout the pandemic. We are proud of that, and that’s because of the trust we’ve built,” said Nicolato. “We’re walking into November, into winter. The time to act is now.”
“This is a crisis layered on top of a crisis,” she added.
And the situation on the ground is getting increasingly worse.
Tricia Martland is a legal studies professor at Roger Williams University School of Justice Studies and has devoted her career to improving education and access for victims of crime. She said in the beginning of the pandemic, social services that served domestic violence victims in the state “got very quiet.”
“It was like a perfect storm. People were worried about food and income loss. And then these victims were forced to lock down with their abuser. We had to actively put ourselves out there to say services are available,” she said. Since then, the need has since “exceptionally gone up.”
Outside of the nonprofits, the systems that are meant to serve victims are also lacking.
People in New England, said Margo K. Lindauer, director of the Domestic Violence Institute at Northeastern University, “believe we are so progressive with services. But when you look at the systems and how we treat marginalized communities (such as people with criminal records, those with disabilities or mental health issues, uneducated, people of color), it’s an embarrassment.”
Back in Cumberland, Elizabeth said she isn’t looking for a handout. But she’s on housing lists, has worked with social workers and advocates, and just wants a stable place for her and her daughter. And it’s all while her ex is trying to contact her, texting her, asking how her daughter is.
“This is just really hard,” she said. “And I never thought it would be hard to feel safe in my home state, in Rhode Island.”