For seven years, Renee Norris-Jones was a “prisoner of war” — daily facing the horrors of domestic violence that included beatings, threats on her life, and threats to her children.
“I’ve had more black eyes than I can count,” she told City Council’s Committee on Safety, on Monday, March 19. “I’ve had hot grease poured on me. I lost two children I gave up for adoption because I could not protect them.”
Norris-Jones was one of several survivors of domestic violence advocating for more shelter space and funding for victim services as council investigates the impact of proposed state budget cuts to city services.
Under Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget, funding for various human services programs, which includes services for the homeless and shelters for victims of domestic abuse, would be slashed approximately 20 percent, about $40 million.
“The cuts under human services are unbelievable,” said Councilman Bill Greenlee. “The folks in Harrisburg are living in another world up there - or don’t care.”
Cuts proposed for this year come after years of previous cuts, magnifying their impact. In addition, cuts at the state level seem poised to curtail services in other areas, which could cause a cascade effect - straining the system even further.
The system that provides services for victims of domestic abuse is already overwhelmed.
Philadelphia, a city with a population of 1.5 million, has just one 100-bed shelter dedicated to emergency housing for victims of domestic abuse. Last year, it served 615 people and turned away 7,705.
“We cannot meet the shelter needs of domestic violence victims in crisis in our community,” said Meghan Kincade, director of the shelter, which is run by Women Against Abuse.
Other large cities have a higher ratio of beds when compared to their populations.
Washington DC, with a population of 600,000 has a 96-bed shelter. Baltimore, Md. has 84 beds for its population of 631,000 and Pittsburgh, with a population of 310,000 has shelter for 32 people.
Those are beds dedicated to emergencies; the city also tries to provide longer term, independent housing through the Office of Supportive Housing, which also assists in providing housing for the homeless, veterans, people with disabilities and people with HIV/AIDS. So, as budgets shrink across agencies, the OSH finds that it is more difficult to meet growing needs.
“OSH has experienced a 339 percent increase in overall demand for family emergency housing between [fiscal year] ’08 and 2011,” said Dainette Mintz, director of the Office of Supportive Housing
And, while incidents of domestic violence nationwide have been declining, in Philadelphia, they are on the rise.
“In 2010, the number of households experiencing domestic violence was 438,” Mintz said, noting that her statistic probably under reported on the phenomenon, which is difficult to track because of the shame it provokes in victims and families. “The count in 2011 was 477.”
Statistics are difficult to compile because domestic violence is a crime that often isolates and shames the victim - who may not report it. Shelter is crucial to ending that isolation and making sure victims get the assistance they need to build new lives.
“The need for a temporary and immediate shelter is a priority for survivors of domestic violence, who do not have the luxury of time to wait … for other housing.”
Norris-Jones struggled for years to escape the violence that had engulfed her life – turning first to her mother and sisters. They could offer no help. Finally, she turned to her father, a man she idolized.
His response left her isolated and with few options.
“His words to me were ‘what did you think marriage was?’” she told the committee, choking back tears. “I had no place to go.”
So, she called Women Against Abuse.
“You called, and you hoped there was space,” she said. “Because if there wasn’t, he already knows you’re gone by now and that’s where you’re going to go back if there isn’t.”
Norris-Jones had finally managed to escape from the man who had held a gun to her head to keep her from leaving.
“WAA was my Harriet Tubman on the Underground Railroad,” she said.
Had she stayed, it’s likely she would have died.
“My husband went to jail for chopping his mother up with an axe,” Norris-Jones said.
Committee members merely took testimony Monday. City officials have little to say about what cuts will be approved the state legislature. And, it’s unclear what city officials could do to meet the need for shelter, but several ideas are floating around city hall.
Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, a committee member, said he was trying to come up with a plan to use some of the vacant property across the city to address the shelter crisis.
“We give away a lot of public property to developers,” he said.
Domestic violence has a disproportionate effect on African-Americans.
Nationally, nearly a third of African-American women reported at least one incident of domestic violence. As a group, African-American women make up 8 percent of the population nationally, but represented 29 percent of female victims, and 22 percent of homicide victims in domestic related crimes, according to statistics from the Institute of Domestic Violence in the African American Community, University of Minnesota.
Men too can be victims. Approximately 12 percent of Black men reported being the victim of domestic abuse.