South Florida Domestic Violence Shelters Fill Up During Coronavirus Crisis

Some abusers are trapping their victims at home, while others are acting out with physical violence.
Some abusers are trapping their victims at home, while others are acting out with physical violence. Photo by Arman Zhenikeyev/Getty
A ringing phone stirred Somy Ali from her sleep one night last week.

A call in the early morning is hardly unusual for Ali, who runs a Miami-based nonprofit for domestic violence survivors. But in recent days, as millions isolate themselves from the outside world while COVID-19 diagnoses surge across Florida, her phone hasn't stopped ringing.

For now, the consensus advice has been to stay inside. Yet for those who experience domestic violence, the outbreak has created a perfect storm of circumstance, trapping some in their homes with an abuser as uncertainty compounds anxiety.

In 2018, Miami-Dade saw 9,137 incidents of domestic violence — more than any other county in the state, according to data from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. That same year in Broward, for comparison, there were 5,395 incidents.

Last week, as Ali sat up in bed to take that predawn call from a cop, she was struck by the story she heard: A woman had been violently beaten by her partner and thrown out onto the street after she coughed inside the house.

"In the people that have the abusive mentality, [isolation] is bringing out the worst in them, which is so scary," Ali says.

Ali's nonprofit, No More Tears, helps domestic abuse and trafficking survivors find housing, medical care, and mental health services — all of which now must be done without in-person communication. As shelter-in-place orders come down from local governments, Ali has spent her days stocking up on food and necessities for clients in safe houses.

Since Ali can no longer physically interact with people seeking help, she's had to use ridesharing apps to transport her clients and also to deliver meals to those without access to grocery stores.

"I was able to stock some of the survivors, but for the new survivors there's nothing out there," Ali says. "There's no meat, there's no chicken, there's nothing. So it's been really, really tough, and who knows when this is going to end."

As more people isolate, Ali says some abusers are trapping their victims at home, while others are acting out with physical violence.

"We're getting both ends, where they're not letting them leave and they're [also] kicking them out and beating them up," she says. "I think the biggest problem is there's no room for victims to go. Every shelter is full, and every shelter is being overly cautious and justifiably so."

For Mary Riedel, president and CEO of the Broward County nonprofit Women in Distress, the rapid escalation of coronavirus in South Florida has meant limiting the number of beds offered in her shelter so proper social distancing practices can be observed.

Before restrictions, the Women in Distress shelter had beds for up to 132 people. Right now, however, the shelter can only accommodate about 90, Riedel says. For the foreseeable future, the shelter is not accepting additional intakes.

"The additional challenge is we are not a medical facility," Riedel says. "We are not medical professionals. We can screen people, but we have to rely on healthcare professionals and hospitals if there were someone that's symptomatic."

Besides sheltering women escaping domestic abuse, Riedel's organization runs a crisis phone line, which normally receives about 25,000 calls a year. The nonprofit also offers counseling and therapy, currently being offered by phone.

The virus itself, of course, does not cause someone to commit abusive acts. But Ali and Riedel say the pandemic can be a pressure point or stressor.

"I think what we're seeing is there's greater anxiety,” Riedel says. "People that are in this situation now, they can't leave. Movement is restricted. Maybe they've lost their jobs, lost wages, lost hours."

At least twice a week, though, Riedel has sat on a conference call with dozens of other leaders who provide services for survivors of domestic violence.

"I've been on a number of calls, usually at least a couple times a week, with centers around the state," she says. "They're all facing similar challenges, but nobody has closed down or turned someone in a dangerous situation away."

The National Domestic Violence Hotline number is 800-799-7233. Counselors are also available via online chat.
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Michael Majchrowicz is a former staff writer at Miami New Times. He studied journalism at Indiana University and has reported for PolitiFact, The New York Times, Washington Post, the Post and Courier, and Tampa Bay Times.