The Ottumwa Courier

June 25, 2013

Where will they go?

By MARK NEWMAN
Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — Women who have been victimized are getting both worried and angry.

The Ottumwa Women's and Crisis Shelter will close. The women living there, and in some cases, their children, are being told to find a new place to stay.

"I understand why they'd be angry," said Cheryl Brown, the executive director.

Budget cuts have resulted in a redesign that offers fewer services in some communities. About half the state's 20 domestic violence shelters are expected to close. The technical phrase the state has used calls the redesign "going regional." All the services are there, the state says. But the services will be available only by traveling over a specific geographic area — locally, that's Wapello and 10 other counties. So this "region" will still have a shelter for women and their children in danger from domestic violence — they'll just have to go to Oskaloosa to stay there.

"I don't understand because we need it more down in this area than up there," said State Representative Mary Gaskill, D-Ottumwa. "It's really unfortunate that we have to give up these things; I know Cheryl worked hard."

Not all of the victims are aware of that, Brown acknowledged. Some of them seem to feel the decision was made locally to close down. It wasn't, she said.

"It may decrease the cost for the government, but it increases the cost for people who need to access these services," said Gaskill.

Those costs for women who do find safe space in Mahaska County can be more than financial, Gaskill said. They may need to pull their kids out of Ottumwa schools, give up a job where they have some seniority or end up commuting daily to a job 30 miles away instead of 3 miles away.

But Oskaloosa has its own residents, and advocates like Brown don't want to put crisis shelters into a crisis, though.

Right now, Brown and her staff are working with the women to find them a better living situation. That means women and their children will be looking for permanent homes. Brown said Ottumwa has a shortage of affordable, clean housing. If there's some she hasn't seen, she said, she'd like community members to contact her. Not all of the women have been working on plans; some are in that angry stage where something that has kept them safe is being taken away. Brown said there is a type of grieving process at work — even for employees, some of whom will lose their jobs but are sticking around to help women make plans.

They may have a little bit of time. An agency is considering giving the Ottumwa shelter enough to stay open a few more weeks.

"Shelters are supposed to be a stopgap measure for the poorest women in the most dangerous circumstances," Brown said.

Those women can get close to full support, whereas others would get varying levels of assistance.

A woman who, with help from a crisis shelter, escaped a violent relationship told the Courier she knows what will happen. Even if shelters are full, mothers will not let their children be homeless, nor will they leave the children alone in a house with a violent resident. She said she's afraid.

"They'll move back in with their abuser," worried the woman.

"They cut funding at the federal level, they cut it at the state level," said Gaskill. "They've been cutting and cutting. You keep fighting for it, but they keep cutting."

"You've got to have a safety net," said Gaskill. "I was of the opinion that is what government was for. I get very discouraged when I wonder why people don't understand the need. I don't know what they think will happen to people."

State Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, had just recently spoken with a volunteer about some of the specific changes that could occur in Ottumwa due to the cuts. When asked about that funding, he said it's something that he wants to look into further, and he'll be able to offer a better opinion on what happened once he's done additional research.

State Rep. Jarad Klein, R-Keota, has been reviewing the updated record from this legislative session. There can be unexpected changes of bills when they left the House for the desk of the governor. He hasn't come across the specific cut affecting domestic violence protection in his reading. Klein said he'll do a little looking around, make some calls and ask some questions about how certain decisions came to be made.

Typically, however, the Legislature will offer a certain level of funding for an organization. They won't tell the administrators of those funds exactly how to spend the money. For example, rarely would a state senator be asked which shelter would remain open, Ottumwa's or Oskaloosa's.

Though there will not be a specific women's shelter in Ottumwa, there will still be services offered through the crisis center.

— To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark