When Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger cut the entire budget for all 94 of the domestic violence shelters run by the California Department of Public Health this July, the timing couldn’t have been worse.

More women seek help for intimate partner violence when the economy is bad, shelter officials said. Now six shelters have closed statewide with others in the Bay Area on the verge as a result of the cuts, according to Adam Keigwin, chief of staff to Senator Leland Yee, who failed to restore funding in the legislature in mid-September.

In the Mission District, shelters are eliminating beds, scaling back emergency services, and thinning their staff in response to losing as much as a third of their total funding, the providers said.

“The funding cuts create undue pressure on performing this vitally important work,” said Jill Zawisza, director of program services for WOMAN Inc, a non-profit with offices in the Mission District that doesn’t receive state funding but whose fundraising efforts have been decimated by the recession.

Women put their life in danger by seeking help, she added.  “You can’t imagine how difficult it is to tell them there’s no space in shelter, that a program is not taking on any new clients, or that it has folded altogether.”

But increasingly, that’s true.

The Riley Center has eliminated six of its 54 shelter beds because of cuts. Its two shelters operate at full capacity, meaning they now turn away six people every night, Mari Alaniz the director said.

The center, which lost 15 percent of its budget with the state cuts, also recently laid off three employees after already reducing its staff to 21 from 35 three years ago.

It served a third more clients in 2008—a total of 1,360—than it had in 2007.

Alaniz attributed most of this rising caseload to the recession.

The Asian Women’s Shelter, which has lost 13 percent of its budget, has experienced a 20 percent increase in crisis calls over the past year, said Vanessa Flores, their community resource coordinator.

And the Cooperative Restraining Order Clinic saw a 13 percent increase in its caseload over the last fiscal year, during which they served 1,038 clients. They have lost just over 10% of their funding due to state cuts.

Schwarzenegger cut the $16.3 million funding helping domestic violence in an effort to close the $24 billion state budget gap. California is alone in cutting all of its domestic violence spending, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

Two-thirds of women trying to access shelter beds in San Francisco are turned away—and 50 percent of homeless women are on the streets because of domestic violence, said Emberly Cross, coordinating attorney at the Cooperative Restraining Order Clinic in the Women’s Building.

“The risk of homicide goes up dramatically when someone is leaving,” said Cross. “If we don’t have resources to help them leave, they are forced into being homeless or going back home to the batterer. When batterers say, “If you ever leave me, I’ll kill you,’ they mean that.”

Community United Against Violence, a Mission-based organization that works mostly with queer survivors of domestic violence, lost a third of its funding as a result of the state cuts.

That means they will turn away 50 people a year seeking in-person counseling, 175 callers to their 24-hour crisis line won’t receive follow-up resources, and the number of hotel vouchers—an alternative to shelters that better serves the queer community—will be reduced, said Shawna Virago, director of the domestic violence program.

The Cooperative Restraining Order Clinic doesn’t have enough funds to fill its bilingual legal assistant position, even after cutting it back to part time.

“It absolutely compromises our ability to provide prompt bilingual legal assistance. We’ve had to rely on volunteers and staff at other agencies to meet the needs, but not as quickly,” Cross said.

“It was complete shock. [The cut] was so big, I simply had to detach until it hit me a few minutes later,” said Virago, who hasn’t seen this severe of a cut in her 13 years at Community United Against Violence.

Senator Yee, who attempted to restore the funding, once worked as a child psychologist, and saw firsthand how a violent home hurts children.

He plans to reintroduce his legislation, which lost by three votes in the last session, to restore funding to the state’s Domestic Violence Program during the next session, which could open in as few as two weeks, said Keigwin, his chief of staff.

In the meantime, organizations are looking for creative ways to fundraise in order to maintain services. The Cooperative Restraining Order Clinic, for example, hosted their first-ever fundraiser at Martuni’s bar earlier this week.

“As much as the economy has weakened, we really want to communicate that there are still free services available 24-hours a day,” said Walesa Kanarek, the outreach coordinator of La Casa de las Madres, whose 12 percent budget cut has resulted in a $300,000 deficit.

“We want survivors to know that we aren’t going anywhere.”

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.


Free 24-Hour Crisis Lines

Asian Women’s Shelter: (877) 751-0800

La Casa de las Madres: Adult Line (877) 503-1850, Teen Line (877) 923-0700

Community United Against Violence: (415) 777-HELP (4357)

The Riley Center: (415) 255-0165

Woman Inc: (877) 384-3578 or (415) 864-4722