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Franklin County's first and only intimate partner violence shelter is expanding

 Jennifer Hamilton is the director of the planning and community development for Lutheran Social Services of Central Ohio. At the CHOICES shelter, victims of intimate partner violence can bring their pets to the shelter's kennel when leaving the situation.  There, the Columbus Humane Society helps care for the animals and residents can play and visit with their pets.
Renee Fox
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WOSU
Jennifer Hamilton is the director of the planning and community development for Lutheran Social Services of Central Ohio. At the CHOICES shelter, victims of intimate partner violence can bring their pets to the shelter's kennel when leaving the situation. There, the Columbus Humane Society helps care for the animals and residents can play and visit with their pets.

When a new domestic violence shelter was opened in 2019, the nonprofit that runs it thought it might be a decade before it needed planned additions, but the need is there already. In 2021, the population at Lutheran Social Services’ CHOICES shelter for victims of intimate partner violence and their children saw a 17% increase in the average daily population over 2020 figures.

The shelter has been at or over capacity since December of 2020, according to a fact sheet. It is the only shelter and domestic violence hotline in Franklin County.

To make it easier for people to leave an abusive intimate partner, the shelter is focused on security, social and clinical support and creating a welcoming environment.

The director of planning and community development for Lutheran Social Services, Jennifer Hamilton knows this facility that opened in 2019 brings something special to the table.

“We have cats and dogs of course, but we’ve had a turtle, we’ve had a gerbil, we’ve had a snake, I believe, so we’ve had different kinds of pets that are welcome here,” Hamilton said during a recent tour of the shelter. “Only 8% of domestic violence shelters in the U.S. have a kennel to offer. And that was very much a part of this process, again, of being thoughtful and mindful to what are the barriers people are facing and how can we provide support to overcome those, so that people can come and get the safety that they need.”

The Columbus Humane Society helps take care of the animals because leaving an abusive situation is already hard enough without leaving behind a pet, Hamilton said.

“We offer a kennel so someone who is fleeing violence can bring their pet with them which is a huge barrier for so many people in the community. I know personally, I have two cats. I would not want to leave my cat babies,” Hamilton said.

Making the shelter comfortable for people of all genders, orientations, religions, nationalities and their children was the top priority when the facility was constructed, she said.

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WOSU

When the shelter was built, room for growth was built in. But, additional housing areas were not expected to be added so quickly.

After the addition opens in May, work to finish a second addition will begin in July.

Franklin County commissioners just dedicated $1.2 million from COVID-19 relief funding to support the expansion.

After it’s completed, the shelter will have room for 168 people at a time. That’s a lot more room than the previous shelter had, more than 100 beds more.

Because the former shelter was so “undersized,” it was difficult to estimate the actual need in the community, Hamilton said.

“It had always been too small, so no one knew, how many people really need this but aren’t able to come because we don’t have enough space,” she said.

The size and conditions of the smaller shelter were sometimes a deterrent for someone thinking of leaving an abusive situation.

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WOSU

“There was one bathtub for everyone in that old place and it was like one of the biggest deterrents to coming to the shelter because you’d have to wait so long to bath your kids because the rest of them were showers,” Hamilton said.

Kids often make up half or more of the population.

Vice president of programs for the nonprofit, Dawnya Underwood, said the entire shelter is designed to be culturally sensitive.

Renee Fox
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WOSU

There is a special Halal and Kosher food preparation area and living spaces include special washing stations. The shelter partners with other community organizations to ensure they meet the cultural needs and expectations of all residents, Underwood said.

White noise machines offer privacy, and living quarters are separated from common areas into wings with private rooms and bathrooms. There are outdoor relaxation and play spaces, and shared play areas for kids of different ages, even a teen room and resource center.

“We’re making sure they have those amenities that make a home,” Underwood said.

Underwood says that in addition to packing kids individualized lunches, so they don’t stand out at school, the facility ensures there is always something available to eat from the dining hall.

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WOSU

“Because food is security. And, many of those impacted by violence --- it’s something that they didn’t have. So yeah, we make sure that they are just able to access food as regularly as they need,” Underwood said.

There are legal advocates who help the men and women navigate the legal system. There are also clinical services and help to navigate school enrollment and transportation. There is childcare and other supports, like help to build a resume or searching for housing.

People usually spend 40 to 45 days there. Hamilton says finding affordable housing is one of the biggest hurdles to leaving.

Underwood says places like CHOICES exist to give someone suffering abuse a choice. Leaving an abusive situation can be the difference between life and death.

“From 2020 to 2021, there were 22 domestic-violence related homicides in Franklin County, and that was an increase of 22% compared to the previous year,” Underwood said.

Underwood expects even more people who suffered silently during the pandemic to start seeking help.

“I can anticipate an increase now that things are starting to open up even more that we will continue to get increased calls from those that have felt trapped and isolated,” she said.

That’s why the expansions are so imperative, Hamilton says.

At the shelter, victims can get counseling to help overcome their trauma, and find solutions to the financial barriers that can make leaving an abuser difficult.

Renee Fox
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WOSU

“Abusers often control the finances and a person’s employment status. So, ‘You have to stay home, you have to take care of the kids.’ Well, when you leave, what are you going to do? Maybe you’ve been out of the workforce for a long time, maybe you feel like you don’t have the skill set. It’s very overwhelming in addition to the other crisis that’s going on in your life,” Hamilton said. “We want to make sure people know about us and know that, while it can be a very scary time, we do everything that we can to lessen it.”

Hamilton wants to remind the public that domestic violence isn’t just physical.

“It is verbal, it is emotional, it can be financial, it is all about power and control so if someone is trying to take away your power, and your control over your life, that is abuse. We have so many people who contact us and say ‘Well, I don’t get hit, but.’ There is no ‘but.’ Abuse is abuse, whether it is physical or not,” she said.

For more information about the shelter and other services for victims of intimate partner violence, call the 24-7 hotline at 614-224-4663.

Like many employers, LSS has several open positions in Columbus. Those interested in working with survivors of domestic violence at the CHOICES shelter can find open positions here: https://lssco.recruitpro.com/jobs/
Copyright 2022 WOSU 89.7 NPR News. To see more, visit WOSU 89.7 NPR News.