Photo by Julie Michelle www.femmefotographie.com
There is a motel down the street from where I used to live. It isn’t terribly seedy as far as motels go – in fact, it’s got an almost adorable, cottage-like charm that sort of blends in with the row of cottage-like homes and apartment buildings that line the street. But, it is a motel nonetheless: one room, one bed, no kitchen or microwave, designed for travelers and passer-by in the most temporary of situations. This is my destination for today, where I am to meet Veronica*, her two year-old daughter and her five year old son, all who have been staying at the motel for nearly a month.
The economy is hard right now – many have lost their jobs and their homes and have been forced to turn to motels as a last ditch resort to keep from living on the streets. That isn’t why Veronica stays. She has a rather nice home to go to if she wanted. But, her husband lives there as well, and she doesn’t want to go home to him – she can’t go home to him, for she risked her very life just to leave. You see, Veronica is a battered woman, having suffered countless beatings at the hands of her husband – including a beating so severe, she had to be hospitalized last year.
After over four years of physical abuse and years before that of emotional abuse, Veronica worked up the courage to leave – no small thing, as he continually threatened to kill her should she ever try, and kept tight control over their finances just in case the fear of death wasn’t enough to deter her. But, when her husband began experiencing increased stress at work, Veronica found the beatings increased as well—both in frequency and severity—and when her son began to exhibit violent behavior, she knew she had to risk leaving, not only for her own safety, but also for that of her children.
It seems almost a cruel twist of fate that after finally bolstering the courage to leave and go to a shelter—an act she feared could end her life, and with good cause: the most dangerous time for a battered woman is when she attempts to flee her abuser—Veronica was temporarily turned away and directed to a motel. But, there was only room for one family at that shelter and four hurting women with children all in dire need of safety and, because Veronica had a car and a little money she somehow managed to save, she was given some vouchers and wait-listed. Having long since been estranged from her friends and family thanks to the emotional manipulation of her husband, she had no other choice but to accept the vouchers and wait.
She’s fearful that she might run out of money before space opens up for her at the shelter—the vouchers cover the cost of the motel for a month but, with no kitchen, her food costs are exorbitant—or worse, that her husband might find her at the motel (she isn’t staying under her own name, but the fear is still there all the same). Yet, despite that, she says the past three weeks holed up in one tiny room with her young children, stressful though it is at times, have been the most liberating three weeks she’s had since she got married over five years ago. And so, Veronica remains hopeful: hopeful that a bed at a shelter will become available soon; hopeful that, despite being out of the workforce for most of the last five years, she’ll soon find a job and begin her life anew.
I just don’t have the heart to remind her that we’re in an economic crisis with unemployment rates higher than any time since the Great Depression, so that job might not be so easy to find. And I certainly don’t have the heart to tell her that Governor Schwarzenegger recently cut 100% of domestic violence funding from the budget effective immediately, sending all of California’s domestic violence programs into fiscal shock. I don’t want to explain that with this budget cut—a cut reducing available funding by as much as 60% for some—shelters may have to close, and so that bed might not become available as quickly as she needs it to. I’m all for informed awareness, but I feel that kind of rational logic in the face of this woman who has already endured so much trauma and pain would just be unnecessarily mean. So I keep quiet.
As I’m driving home from my meeting with Veronica, I am overwhelmed by the thought that her story is but one of many similar tales across this so-called “golden state.” Indeed, the executive director of a shelter I have worked with has said that demand for help has skyrocketed, even as they’re forced to cut back services because of finances, operating on a bare bones minimum and requiring staff to take two furlough days each month. Worse, I learn that as the executive director was herself learning about the recent budget cuts on a conference call, she was informed by staff that one of their clients had been brutally murdered—in public—by her batterer.
In 2007, 110 such women were murdered by their husbands, ex-husbands and boyfriends here in California – that’s one woman killed every three days throughout the course of the year. I shudder to think what that number might be for 2008. And when I arrive home, I’m confronted by the grisly story of yet another woman brutally killed, her body beaten and strangled, her teeth and fingers removed before she was shoved in a suitcase and tossed in a dumpster – police suspect by her ex-husband, who was recently charged with a misdemeanor count of “battery constituting domestic violence” that is scheduled for trial in December. Too late, unfortunately.
Our country is experiencing an economic crisis on a scale most of us have never before seen, and California has been especially hard hit. This recession has taught us that we can no longer depend on our elected officials to ensure the existence of a social safety net to help protect the most vulnerable in our society. And, when resources do not exist for victims to receive domestic violence services, they are left with no choice but to return to their abusers. A part of me fears that may be Veronica’s fate, and I can’t help but wonder: what kind of people are we, that we can so easily disregard the lives of the most vulnerable – our elders, our mothers and nurturers, our children and future – with the callous flick of a pen or the deafening silence of our inaction?
Fortunately, there are bits of silver lining peeking through: earlier this month, the U.S. Justice Department awarded nearly $3 million to six California domestic violence programs, while state Senator Leland Yee has written two bills that would provide domestic violence funding – one a horse-racing oversight bill that he gutted and rewrote to instead call for the restoration of the $16.3 million in funding for domestic violence centers that the Governor vetoed last month. But those remain tiny slivers of hope: Senator Yee’s bill needs the support of the Speaker of the Assembly, Karen Bass, before it can be moved forward for a vote. And the money received by those six programs from the Justice Department is reserved solely to bolster long-term transitional housing programs; many programs still need money urgently to provide emergency shelter and services.
Ultimately, it is up to us—as mothers, as women, as a community of interconnected human beings—to take a stand against abuse and to help protect the most vulnerable in our society. As economic hardship increases, so will violence against women and children and the elderly and those who are least able to protect themselves. We must stand up and speak out against such abuse now. We cannot wait for the recession to end or for our officials to grow hearts or for our state’s budget to be magically balanced before we take action. Instead, we as individuals must work together to create our own social safety net, and the time to do so is now.
*Name and identifying details have been changed.
Cherita Smith is a nonprofit fundraiser & do-gooding activist with a passion for social justice who has worked to raise funds and awareness on the issue of domestic violence (and the related issues of poverty, homelessness & hunger) since 2006, when she began work at a Southern California shelter for women escaping domestic violence.
CALL TO ACTION FOR CALIFORNIA RESIDENTS: Don’t let women like Veronica down. Respond to Senator Leland Yee’s two senate bills authored to save domestic violence program funding. CLICK HERE to contact Speaker of the Assembly, Karen Bass, and let her know you support this urgent legislation.