A year of COVID-19 at SAFE

Written by Antwon R. Martin
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The below is a transcript from the March 2021 edition of the SAFE Voices Newscast.

For many survivors of violence, the pandemic has been a crisis within a crisis. Based on the past year of data collected by SAFE and the stories we’ve heard directly from survivors, violence and abuse have increased dramatically during the pandemic.

It’s a chilling trend that continues a year after COVID-19 first made its way into our community.

“Since the pandemic started, we’ve seen an increase in the number of people contacting SAFEline as well as an increase in severity of abuse that people are experiencing.”

That’s Erin Clark, Director of SAFE’s 24/7 SAFEline. She said one story that stood out to her involved a caller who had been experiencing violence from a partner long before the pandemic even started.

“…and a new tactic of control that her partner hat started to use against her was the frequent threat to kick her out of their home, leaving her without anywhere to stay, with the intent of deliberately exposing her to COVID,” Erin said. “This caller was struggling with the difficult choice of staying in a home where she was being physically hurt of leaving the home with nowhere to go and increasing her vulnerability to being infected by COVID.”

We started hearing stories like this as early March of 2020, right when the pandemic began in our community. And it hasn’t let up.

Over the past year, our SAFEline saw a 14 percent increase in contacts compared to the previous year. For reference, we received nearly 22,000 total contacts between March of 2020 and February of 2021.

SAFEline advocates respond around the clock to calls, texts, and online chat messages from people seeking support for domestic violence, sexual violence, child abuse, sex trafficking, and parenting support.

Our SAFEline numbers are a big indicator of the need for resources in the Austin area.

For callers like the person Erin mentioned, our advocates can help safety plan, set up counseling sessions, help them find shelter—either at SAFE or elsewhere–or connect them with other services in the community.

When it comes to the sharp uptick in need, SAFE Co-CEO Kelly White said we had an idea of what we were in for early on.

“We knew from the very beginning that the pandemic would lead to abusive households becoming even more violent. Shutting down our services was just never an option. So, we quickly adapted to make sure survivors in our community could continue to access SAFE for support.”

Right away, SAFE set up COVID protocols to keep our staff and residents safe.

People who could work from home were set up for remote work, everyone who comes on to campus is required to wear masks, temperatures are taken at the front door, everyone socially distances, and our COVID response team has been hard at work making sure our shelter staff receive vaccines.

While many of us can work remotely by contacting clients digitally and meeting over video, when it comes to caring for people in a shelter, you can’t do that from home.

In our Children’s Shelter for example, if a young child who has been separated from their parents is crying and says they need a hug, our youth care workers are going to give them a hug.

There’s no way around that, and so our staff have done everything possible to provide care safely. And for coming in during the pandemic, our essential staff are receiving a pay differential.

Additionally we’ve set up isolation rooms where people can be quarantined in shelter if need be. And SAFE shelters continue to operate with a waitlist—something that has always been the case, whether we’re in the midst of a global pandemic or not.

One program that actually started during the pandemic is Shelter Away, which uses a local hotel to provide bridge shelter. This allows us to safely move survivors from our secure family shelter, thus opening up more space behind the gates for families in immediate danger.

Survivors and their families staying at the hotel still have access to all of SAFE’s services.

We continue to support survivors every way we can, but there’s no question that a year of COVID has taken a toll on our coworkers. As SAFEline Director Erin Clark explained, our advocates have had to deal with the effect of the pandemic like everyone else.

“Experiencing the loss of loved ones from COVID, increased isolation, not doing the things that would bring them a sense of satisfaction or a sense of feeling whole. Many of our advocates are reporting having to deal with feelings of grief and significant loss, not only from their own experiences, but also serving clients who have been impacted so significantly,” Erin said.

To help manage those feelings and the vicarious trauma that our advocates take on, Erin said SAFEline advocates have daily check ins to give everyone space to voice their concerns for the day. On top of that, advocates have increased their presence and availability to one another to make sure people’s needs are being met—including basic needs like having enough food.

Ultimately, we’re hanging in there. We’ve learned a lot over the last year and once the pandemic is finally over, many of those lessons will continue to be applied. For now, it’s still very hard—for us and for our clients.

If you or someone you know may need support with domestic violence, child abuse, sex trafficking, or parenting support, SAFEline is available by phone at 512.267.SAFE, text 737.888.3722, or online chat at safeaustin.org/chat.