A hotel to call home

Domestic abuse victims in Illinois are led to alternative lodging, not yet in Springfield

Coronavirus is especially risky when it comes to congregate settings. It spreads easily. Throughout the state there have been clusters of infection at correctional facilities and a nursing home. Some have died. And now, some are grappling with the best way to house survivors of domestic abuse who have left unsafe situations.

On April 2, the Illinois Department of Human Services announced a new emergency fund worth $1.2 million. "Past experiences have taught the field that there can be an increase in domestic violence during times of crisis like these," said Teresa Tudor, program manager for the IDHS Bureau of Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Human Trafficking. Tudor said that with social distancing guidelines – the part of the stay-at-home order from the governor that said people should stay six feet away or more from each other while in public settings – "our current shelter capacity would be reduced."

While money is being made available for hotel stays, so far, not all those who contract with the state are planning to take that option.

"If we have room, we're bringing them in," said Angela Bertoni, of the people she serves. Bertoni is the executive director of Springfield's Sojourn Shelter and Services, which covers five counties including Sangamon, Menard and Logan. She said the shelter has about 20 people currently in its care. It's about two-thirds full. Much of the space is communal. Bedrooms and bathrooms are often shared, as is the kitchen. Some of the people who stay there have jobs. Like the rest of Illinoisans, they can come and go for necessities such as medicine and food. Bertoni said she worries sending people to hotels could jeopardize safety.

Sojourn serves people of all ages and genders. The shelter is staffed 24/7. Some have been working from home to make social distancing within the facility easier, she said. Bertoni said she is asking all staff and residents to social distance and regularly sanitize spaces. Crisis management and counseling is largely being done over the phone. Bertoni said the situation could change and she has started to look at hotel options. "You have to understand, it's not a correctional facility. It's not something where we mandate people to do certain things," she said. For the immediate future, she plans to keep operating this way, with people living at the shelter.

"This is not new. It's just on a much bigger scale," said Tudor of hotels being used as space for victims. Out of the 56 community-based domestic violence programs that IDHS funds, most have shelters. But some do not. They may refer victims to other shelters, or at times, place them in hotels. Security measures are taken to ensure the hotel stays are entirely confidential, said Tudor.

Bertoni said she's been getting an increase of calls from homeless people seeking a place to stay, but she can't help them unless they're victims of domestic violence. When it comes to those who fit the criteria, she's seen a slight decrease in the number asking for help when compared to this time of year in years past. "I think we're going to get hit the hardest when the shelter-in-place is lifted," she said.

If you are seeking help for a situation involving domestic abuse, you can call or text the "Domestic Violence Helpline" at 1-877-863-6338. –Rachel Otwell

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