SANDPOINT — A homeless puppy is cute and thoroughly adoptable. A child in need is heart-rending and easy to help. But a woman who has been beaten black-and-blue is just plain terrifying.
That could explain why society shrinks from this ugly reality and often looks the other way when domestic violence strikes.
“Nationally, communities spend three times the amount of money on animal care that they do on taking care of women and children,” said Cherie Peak, domestic violence services director for Transitions in Progress Services (TIPS), a local organization closely affiliated with the Bonner County Homeless Task Force. “That’s been the case here in our own community, as well.”
A little more than a month ago, a lack of federal grant funding forced the closure of a shelter that has protected victims of domestic violence and provided services to get them out of danger since 1997.
In that time, nearly 1,000 women and children were provided with a safe haven from potentially deadly situations, while hundreds more received services that ranged from counseling and custody assistance to legal advocacy, education, medical care, transportation, food and clothing.
In 2009 alone, an average of 10 women and more than 15 children per month received services from the Harmony House shelter and its network of community resources after calling the organization’s 24-hour hotline for help, Peak reported.
The temporary housing through the shelter, combined with the support services, has acted as a safety net for victims. Like so many other groups whose budgets have been eviscerated by a down economy, TIPS now turns to the community to help get its programs back on track.
According to Peak, such an investment on the front end saves countless thousands of dollars in law enforcement and court costs, along with the associated expense of routing these cases through Health & Welfare and Medicaid, not to mention the additional price tag for victim treatment and counseling.
The generational impact is just as costly, since children from abusive households tend to become at-risk teens who are more prone to drug use and juvenile crime. Peak also cited national domestic violence statistics stating that 80 percent of boys who grow up watching their mothers be abused by violent fathers or boyfriends go on to perpetrate the same kind of violence — at first on the playground, then on dates, and later in their own homes.
“The health of our community is intrinsically involved with domestic violence,” said Peak. “These women are your neighbors; these kids are the same ones your kids go to school with.
“Social services aren’t cheap,” she added. “But if you look at the collateral expense involved, it’s a lot more costly not to take care of the problem.”
Because there were women and children still housed at the shelter when it closed in October, Bonner County Homeless Task Force President Mary Jo Ambrosiani made a $10,000 donation to fund temporary assistance through the Ambrosiani-Pastore Foundation in order not to leave those families the lurch. Now, TIPS and the homeless task force are in the hunt for similarly large donors. In the past, the group has been challenged with finding an effective fundraiser – the kind of vehicle that fills the coffers of other local organizations.
Over the years, the community has been generous with its support in the form of donated clothing, furniture and household items, Peak noted, but those items are not needed at present.
“We have no place to put them,” she said. “What we need right now is financial support. Any donation amount will be put to work, but we need citizens who are willing to make a commitment to significant financial support.”
Last year, TIPS provided more than 1,300 bed nights at the shelter to more than 100 victims, answered nearly 450 calls on the victim hotline, provided legal advocacy in 50 civil and criminal domestic violence cases, arranged for 15 civil protection orders, one sexual assault forensic examination for a child, about 45 crisis interventions and counseling and education for approximately 50 men who were required to go through a court-mandated “batterer treatment” program.
The annual cost for these programs has been about $175,000, the majority of which has been funded by federal grants. In 2008, those funds began to dry up. Last year — with nearly $90 million in grant requests for an available pool of $33 million — they disappeared completely for many small organizations like TIPS.
Rural communities are notoriously good at hiding domestic violence. Battered women get trapped in remote homes, left with no transportation and feeling that to leave their abusers would result in homelessness, at best, or the threat of a violent death.
This rock was turned over and its underside cast into the light in 1995, when the homeless task force opened the Blue Haven transitional housing facility and learned that more than 60 percent of the women and children requesting housing had been victims of domestic violence in Bonner and Boundary counties. Within two years, the Harmony House shelter and related support resources were put in place — a first for the two northern counties.
Even with those services available, one state law enforcement agency reports that the tip of the Panhandle still has more reported cases of abuse than elsewhere in Idaho.
“According to the Idaho State Police, Bonner and Boundary counties have the highest incidence of domestic violence in the state,” Peak said, adding that one in three women are victims.
Using treatment, support and education, TIPS has worked to break the cycle and free those women and their children from the darkness and danger in their lives. Last month, that work came to an abrupt halt when TIPS closed the shelter and laid off its small staff. Battered women who once had 24-hour access to a live person on the victim hotline now get an answering machine message referring them to transitional housing services that already are so full that there is a months-long waiting list to get in.
“Right now, we’re at nothing,” Peak said. “But we’re ready to start rebuilding using whatever the community can give us.”
TIPS currently is seeking a grant writer with experience in social services grants, as well as board members with experience in large-scale fundraising efforts.
The organization also is raising money with a raffle for four Seahawks game tickets and two nights of hotel accommodations. Raffle tickets are $10 each, seven for $50, or 15 for $100, with the drawing to be held on Dec. 6 for the upcoming Seahawks-Falcons game in Seattle.
For information on the raffle or to inquire about supporting TIPS, call (208) 265-2952 or visit: www.transitionsinprogress.org