Domestic Violence During Stay-At-Home: WNC Agencies Seek To Reach The Region's Most Vulnerable

Apr 22, 2020

With orders to stay at home due to the Covid-19 pandemic, calls to domestic violence hotlines are increasing in Western North Carolina. Local agencies that support survivors of abuse are particularly concerned about those who are undocumented. 

Of all the agencies contacted for this story, one message was especially clear. We’re still open, and our services are available -- and also in Spanish. 


“Our biggest message to our Latinx community is they are not alone, we have the resources, and we are working really hard with other local agencies,” Jenny Lopez is the Latina Program Director for the 30th Judicial District Domestic Violence-Sexual Assault Alliance. The Haywood-County based organization serves the state’s seven westernmost counties. 


Lopez says reaching out to undocumented individuals amidst the stay-at-home order poses significant challenges. Since groups of more than 10 people are banned, churches aren’t doing weekly services. Community centers are closed. Lopez says she’s worried survivors of domestic violence feel forced to stay in abusive situations because they fear the social safety net has disappeared. 


It’s a similar scenario playing out in Buncombe County. 


“Our commitment is that we will do everything we can to make sure that a person never has to sleep another night in an abusive home,” April Burgess-Johnson, executive director of Helpmate Domestic Violence Services in Asheville, said.


The non-profit has had to quickly pivot to find shelter for survivors. Because of social distancing, the number of beds has been reduced by more than half  -- since individuals now aren’t able to share a room. 


Burgess-Johnson says from mid-March to mid-April, requests for shelter jumped 44 percent and calls to the hotline rose 17 percent. She says the largest spike was during those first two weeks, with shelter requests rising 225 percent over the week before. 


“It looks like some folks who needed to escape early in the crisis have done so, or else people are so scared that they’re hunkering down and hoping for the best,” Burgess-Johnson said.  


Buncombe County and the Dogwood Health Trust have together committed $35,000 to make up the difference to fund an auxiliary shelter. But even after social distancing guidelines are eased, Burgess-Johnson says, the worst may still yet to be seen. 


“I am really concerned about the rates of unemployment that we have right now and the stress that’s putting on families because we know that produces a powder keg where domestic violence-related death is more likely to occur,” she added. 

That’s because one of the factors that increases the risk of homicide from domestic violence is whether the abusive partner is unemployed.  The city of London has already seen this grim scenario play out. Domestic violence-related homicides there have doubled during the pandemic. 


Agencies that counsel and support survivors of domestic violence point to risk factors, like unemployment, to help them assess their current situation and empower them to leave. But with a safety net that’s increasingly less visible, agencies fear, victims are staying put. 


“Already being in this country undocumented and the anti-immigrant climate that exists across our communities...that in itself is traumatic," Angelica Wind, executive director of Our Voice, said. "And then you add this other piece where your community support systems are being compromised because you are being told that you should no longer congregate and you should stay at home, so that’s even more isolating.”


In the midst of the pandemic, Our Voice has continued to offer free counseling, crisis support and case management. But Wind points out that for survivors who are undocumented, assistance such as food stamps or government stimulus checks aren’t waiting on the other side. 


“While the nation is doing the best it can to create safety nets around filing for unemployment and these other things, we can’t lose sight that if you’re undocumented, you don’t have access to those programs,” Wind said. 


Wind worries that those living in violent situations are making the choice to stay, because they feel they have no other choice. She and the other providers in Western North Carolina stress to survivors there is help available, even in these uncertain times.  


If you or someone you know needs support or guidance in a domestic violence or sexual assault crisis, Helpmate’s 24 hour hotline is (828) 254-0516. 


Domestic abuse and sexual assault hotlines in WNC: 

Haywood County (828) 456-7898

Jackson County (828) 586-8969

Macon County   (828) 369-5544 

Swain County (828) 488-6809

Cherokee County (828) 359-6830

Clay County (828) 389-0797

Graham County (828) 837-8064 or 488-6809

Qualla Boundary (828) 488-6809