MARY ANN THOMAS
TARENTUM, Pa. (AP) — When a Pittsburgh woman was chased by her knife-wielding husband a few years ago, she escaped by zigzagging between parked cars because she knew he could catch her if she ran straight ahead.
But that only solved an immediate problem.
Debora, a college-educated mother of four children in her mid-40s, had no job and no money.
"Sometimes you feel so beaten down," she said.
It took Debora about six weeks to get into programs to begin a new, violence-free life at the Light of Life Rescue Mission in Pittsburgh's North Side.
"There's a waiting list for shelters and programs and when you got no family here, what are you going to do — live with the abuse?"
Prospects for victims of domestic violence like Debora, at times, seem bleak.
Shelters have been turning away victims of domestic violence who need emergency housing in record numbers.
With its secure 23-bed shelter, complete with a children's library, high security and outdoor surveillance cameras, there is no vacancy at the Alle-Kiski Area HOPE Center in Tarentum.
The same is true at the Women's Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh.
Both shelters have waiting lists.
In fact, they rank fourth and third, respectively, in the state for the number of times that they had to turn victims away in fiscal year 2010-11.
It's a problem across the country.
"I've been doing this work since 1981, and I absolutely believe that this is the most difficult time we've had in the field to provide emergency shelter for victims," said Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Denver, Colo.
With a pressure-cooker of a depressed economy mixed with high unemployment, social service cuts and less affordable housing options, there probably has never been a worse time to escape a physically abusive relationship.
Domestic violence is the most frequent crime in the country, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office, Western Pennsylvania District.
About 56 percent of 700 law enforcement agencies reported last week that the poor economy is fueling an increase in domestic conflict, up from 40 percent of agencies in a similar survey in 2010, according to the Police Executive Research Forum.
Locally, in the past few weeks, one man was arrested for allegedly beating his 22-year-old ex-girlfriend from Gilpin with a baseball bat while she was at work at a Harmar nursing home.
Another man was found with brass knuckles, according to police, and is accused of pinning his girlfriend to the wall and repeatedly beating her in Lower Burrell. When police arrived, the woman's face was covered in blood, and she was vomiting and going in and out of consciousness, according to the criminal complaint.
NOWHERE TO GO
"Sometimes there is nowhere to go and you live in so much fear," Debora said. "You're afraid to make a break. You're afraid the guy will hurt you. What if he is right? He provides everything."
Domestic violence program administrators said housing is the biggest stumbling block.
"There are fewer programs that are available to provide a broader, safer net to make it possible for victims to be on their own in a safer home," said Ann Emmerling, executive director of the Blackburn Center in Greensburg.
Counselors at the HOPE Center and other shelters work with victims to find suitable shelter elsewhere. That can mean in another county, which causes complications, such as transportation and changing schools for children who are already shook up.
When homeless shelters are out of rooms, shelter officials try to find temporary safe havens for the victim and her children.
But those options, of course, are limited.
And looking for a permanent new home is difficult.
There are waiting lists, for instance, for subsidized government housing.
That puts further strains on the homeless shelters, because it creates longer stays for the victims.
It's tough to find housing that is affordable and safe for someone who isn't holding down a well-paying, full-time job.
"Many just don't have the income to afford market housing," said Pat Fenton, deputy director of Action Housing, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that deals with local housing issues.
With rents for nice, suburban one-bedroom apartments at $700 to $800, "it's not always affordable where people want to live," he said.
Victims want to earn the money to strike out on their own, but it's hard.
"What is amazing is that employment would be the easy part if you are hungry to work," said Michelle Bond, executive director of the HOPE Center. "But it's harder to find licensed child care and it's more expensive."
Domestic abuse victims in the area served by the HOPE Center face additional hurdles.
They, like other people in the Alle-Kiski Valley who can't drive or don't own a car, are hurt by reductions in bus service by the Port Authority of Allegheny County, and the threat of significant further cuts.
They're far away from the four county seats, Butler, Pittsburgh, Greensburg and Kittanning, where social services for job training and assistance are generally located.
For victims like Debora, it's a scramble no matter what.
She is in a privately owned apartment in the Regent Square area of Pittsburgh with her children. She is supported by public assistance and works at a nonprofit agency.
Debora is working on her master's degree in counseling.
"At first, I didn't how I was going to support myself," she said. "But I didn't sit back and wait for the check.
"Life is not going to get easier if you don't do the work. Cutbacks are everywhere," she said. "You have to be determined to help yourself."
Information from: Valley News Dispatch, http://www.valleynewsdispatch.comTags: