Robyn Swirling has been a volunteer with DC SAFE since September 2012. Robyn was named DC SAFE’s Volunteer of the Year in 2014.
Have you ever been so desperate for a warm place to sleep that you stayed overnight in a booth at McDonald’s? Thankfully, I haven’t. But one of the worst sentences I have ever had to say to someone was “I need you to sleep in that McDonald’s with your baby for just one more night.”
I am a volunteer advocate on SAFE’s On-Call Advocacy Program response line – the only 24-hour domestic violence hotline in Washington, DC. And one Sunday evening, I answered a call from a desperate young mother who was fleeing domestic violence and needed a place to stay. SAFE’s shelter was full, and there are a limited number of DC shelters that are available for new client intake on the weekend, fewer still on a Sunday evening, and even fewer when you count how many accept children. After a couple hours of trying to find a place for her, I called the woman back and asked her to spend the night at a McDonald’s.
Then I cried. A lot.
I do pretty OK with the difficult situations I encounter and hear about on the hotline. I can take in stories of horrific violence and, though certainly not easy, I manage. But the hardest thing, for me, is telling a person who has gotten up the courage and pulled together everything they and their children have to escape a violent relationship that I can’t help them find a safe place to sleep. It takes an average of 7 attempts for a survivor to escape a domestic violence relationship, and one of the major reasons survivors go back to abusive partners is for lack of alternate housing. This has been on my mind since the very first call I ever answered on the hotline.
This is where you and I come in. On October 8, please join my fellow advocates and me at Keep DC SAFE, our annual fundraiser and awards reception. Tickets are only $25 (though please give more if you can!), with all the money raised through this event going toward building and running a new SAFE Space shelter and continuing to provide the crucial services SAFE makes available to survivors every day.
In the three years since I first walked into the SAFE offices to begin training as a volunteer advocate, I’ve learned that these survivors are our neighbors, friends, and family –and us. It was a steep and deeply meaningful learning curve. After forty hours of training, I took my first shift on the hotline, shadowing an experienced advocate. When she was tied up on another call and the phone rang, I took my first of hundreds of calls as a SAFE volunteer.
That call was from a survivor, who was freezing in her car on an exceptionally cold autumn night, in the parking lot of a shelter. A SAFE advocate had found her a spot in that shelter for the night, but she arrived at nearly 10pm, well past the intake curfew, because she had spent numerous hours in the emergency room, having injuries and wounds caused by her husband cared for and documented. She needed help getting someone to let her into the locked shelter. After several frustrating conversations with shelter staff, she was allowed inside.
I was so angry at that shelter supervisor, who at one point asked me “can’t she just go somewhere else tonight?” The shelter was a general women’s shelter, not intended specifically for domestic violence survivors, and it seems unlikely she had ever received training on working with survivors or their particular needs in a shelter space. This isn’t her fault, but it is shocking considering that 63 percent of homeless women have experienced intimate partner violence as adults, and a staggering 92 percent of homeless women have experienced severe physical or sexual abuse at some point in their lives. These anecdotes highlight the need for more shelter beds for domestic violence survivors, especially those who have children with them, as well as the urgent need for greater understanding about domestic violence among those running general shelters.
SAFE is working to make that a reality. The SAFE Space shelter provides, well, a safe space for individuals and families leaving violent relationships. SAFE staff provides or connects survivors with legal information, help with protection orders, housing assistance, nutrition and food assistance, linkage with the police department and US Attorney’s office, mental health services, sexual assault survivor resources, and more. There’s no limit to the number or age of children a survivor can bring, as there are in other shelters. Each survivor gets his or her own apartment space, where s/he can process and just be on their own. No shelter is a great place to be, obviously, but SAFE Space is honestly tremendous in the support and resources it provides to survivors.
Now SAFE is looking for a new home for SAFE Space – a location that’s larger, and in a better area for DC’s population of survivors. This undertaking isn’t easy – anyone who’s looked for housing in DC lately knows that finding a place that meets your needs, is available at the right time, will accept you as tenant, and then finding enough money for it or a financial backer is a very difficult thing to do. There’s unfortunately an additional barrier here: the unwillingness of many sellers, landlords, and residents to have a domestic violence shelter in their backyard. You can read more about the challenges SAFE is facing in getting a new shelter space in this excellent write-up from Washington City Paper.
Let’s make sure everyone has a safe place to go when they need it. Please come to our gala on Thursday, October 8, at the Pepco Edison Place Gallery. Help us raise funds and honor advocates and volunteers who work generously and tirelessly to support survivors and their families.