Domestic Violence

Just when it needed it most, Fresno's main women’s shelter lost key federal money

Survivors of domestic violence need more than an overnight sanctuary to recover from abuse, but a change in federal housing priorities is forcing Fresno's main shelter to look elsewhere for funds to provide longer-term safe housing.

And the reduction in funds comes at a time when even more secure beds are needed for abused women and their children because of an upswing in the crime in Fresno.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has shifted focus from transitional housing to permanent housing for the homeless, which has meant a loss of about $224,000 to the Marjaree Mason Center for the transitional program at a Fresno safe house.

"We need another safe house, but right now we have to fund the ones that we have," said Nicole Linder, Marjaree Mason's executive director.

Marjaree Mason provides 89 emergency beds in Fresno and eight beds in Clovis for victims who flee abuse and have no secure place to go. Last year the center, one of the largest in California, provided more than 50,000 nights of housing to abused women, children and men. And the shelter beds are always full. Almost any week, a handful of women and children wind up staying for days at hotels that are less secure than a shelter.

A framed photo of Marjaree Mason hangs in the front office of the Marjaree Mason Center in Fresno. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

Marjaree Mason has relied heavily on fundraising to maintain the emergency beds, and the community has been generous, contributing about $1 million last year in donations and private grants. But now in addition to supporting those beds, the center needs the public's help to underwrite transitional housing. It lost funding at the end of April for 16 transitional beds in Fresno.

The funding loss comes even as more women are in need of longer-term housing in Fresno: Violent domestic violence cases increased 15.8 percent in 2017.

Transitional housing is a bridge between emergency shelter and permanent housing. It takes time for women to successfully recuperate from abuse and get back on their feet, Linder said. They and their children can stay in transitional housing for up to a year.

Domestic violence victims who are homeless

Women typically stay in emergency shelter for 30 to 60 days, but it can take more time to complete restraining orders, undergo counseling, secure employment and find permanent housing. And without a safe place to recover from abuse, victims may feel they have no choice other than to return to a home still occupied by a violent partner. Or they can become homeless, living on the streets and facing dangers of a different sort.

More victims of domestic violence were identified as homeless in Fresno-Madera counties in a 2017 point-in-time homeless count than any other group. According to the report, there were 637 homeless domestic abuse victims, and 555 were living on the streets. Homeless adults with mental illness were the next largest sub-group, the count reported. There were 469 homeless adults with mental illness; 407 were on the streets.

Most of the homeless women who seek emergency, overnight shelter at Naomi's House in Fresno were a domestic violence victim before they became homeless, said Sara Mirhadi, chief programs officer at Poverello House, which operates the homeless shelter for women. "I think it's a problem that is more pervasive than we believe," she said.

In 2016, Marjaree Mason had to close 18 transitional beds in Reedley when it lost about $293,000 in HUD funds. This year, Marjaree Mason did not get HUD funding for 16 transitional beds in Fresno, and funds are being raised to keep them open. But HUD fully funded a transitional safe house in Clovis.

"We are 100 percent behind making necessary arrangements to keep all facilities open and operational to serve the needs of our community," Linder said. "It just may take a greater philanthropic investment from the community than in previous years."

Linder said HUD is helping victims of domestic violence get into permanent housing. This year the agency awarded Marjaree Mason $656,668 to help victims with the costs of moving into apartments or homes. "That is a great partnership," she said.

But sending victims of domestic abuse straight from emergency lodging to permanent housing doesn't work, said Lucianna Ventresca, Marjaree Mason's associate director who oversees Safe House operations. "They fail," she said. "They're not ready yet. They just haven't got the tools yet to make in on their own."

Lisa Casarez, 54, said she needed time to heal when she escaped an abusive marriage 30 years ago. She likely would have returned home had she and her children not been rescued by Marjaree Mason. She had 50 cents in her pocket and no gas in the car tank. "I didn't have any shoes on, my kids would probably have started to get hungry. We were cold."

The time spent in safe housing gave her a chance to enroll in college classes and to find an affordable apartment, Casarez said. Now she is a social worker and the founder of Angels of Grace Foster Family Agency in Fresno, where she makes sure children have shoes, clothes and a safe place to sleep when they are removed from unsafe homes.

She'll always be grateful for the support she received at Marjaree Mason, she said. "I was in that place where I needed to be rescued and people rescued me."

Barbara Anderson: 559-441-6310, @beehealthwriter
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