Domestic Violence Shelters Face Steep Funding Cuts in New Year

By the time the 2,000-plus domestic violence survivors come to the Family Violence Law Center in Oakland, both their safety and housing are often at risk.

A survivor who’s successfully gotten an abusive partner ordered out of their shared apartment must next shoulder the rent on their own, said Erin Scott, executive director of the Oakland nonprofit. Moving out on their own brings them face to face with a daunting Bay Area housing market. Becoming homeless would exacerbate everything for a client already recovering from trauma.

Scott’s organization uses a grant program that pays for anything a client may need to stay housed, such as renegotiating leases with landlords, covering missed utility bills, or fixing their car so they can get to work.

“We are doing mostly homelessness prevention,” Scott said.

But the nonprofit’s program, Domestic Violence Housing First, sees a grim financial future on the horizon: Federal funding cuts are likely in 2024, which will affect the more than 17,000 households across the state who get those services, and the more than 13,000 people who visited domestic violence shelters in 2021-22.

Across California, similar shelter and housing programs for survivors are bracing for cuts next year. Also affected are a range of operations including county law enforcement’s victims’ services, court-appointed child advocates, rape crisis centers and legal assistance for victims of sexual assault and human trafficking.

The federal funding that pays for the services has been on the decline, prompting Congress to restrict the amount of money distributed to the states. Advocates for the programs, including the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence and the anti-sexual violence group Valor, are hoping California will backfill an expected 30-40% loss with the state’s own funds.

The last time the state did that, in 2021 with a $100 million supplement, California was flush with cash. Now, the advocates’ request for $200 million a year comes at a tight time for the state’s finances. Amid lower-than-expected tax revenues, state budget analysts have projected a record $68 billion deficit next year.

Cuts from the federal government, reflected in President Joe Biden’s budget and bills in both the House and the Senate, won’t be final until Congress passes and Biden approves a spending bill in early 2024. California, anticipating it will receive less, is considering reducing its grants to counties and nonprofits beginning in the next state fiscal year, which begins July 1.

A spokesperson for the state Department of Finance declined to comment on California’s plan to address the federal cuts, which is expected to be included in the state budget that Gov. Gavin Newsom will propose in January. Brian Ferguson, a spokesperson for the Office of Emergency Services also did not comment, saying only that funding levels for the grants are controlled by the federal government. Nor would the agency release minutes from July and August meetings in which officials discussed the funding, saying the minutes have not been finalized.

Domestic violence, homelessness linked

Among those facing the higher end of potential cuts in California are the housing and shelter programs for domestic violence survivors, a group particularly vulnerable to becoming homeless. That could mean reductions in services as California’s record homelessness continues to worsen. The Housing First program at Scott’s organization is funded entirely by the federal grants.

In California, state data for the first half of 2023 show 21% of those seeking homeless services reported having experienced domestic violence — outside of some shelters specifically serving survivors. A survey last year of unhoused women in Los Angeles County found 44% said domestic violence caused them to become homeless, and 29% said they left a permanent housing placement because of it.

“For a lot of our clients, domestic violence is the last straw,” Scott said. “They were already kind of on the brink of homelessness just because of the high cost of housing. They were in a two-income situation and for their own well-being and safety, they aren’t, all of a sudden.”

The nonprofit has already lost out on the renewal of a legal assistance grant this year because of the cuts, she said. That amounted to the cost of one staff attorney, who stayed on only because another staff member left.

The dollars in question come from the federal Victims of Crime Act fund, a pot of money maintained by the U.S. Department of Justice. Going into the fund are fines collected from people convicted of federal crimes. Every year, Congress decides how much of the fund goes out to states.

For years, the fund grew while the amount going to states remained mostly flat, below $1 billion. In 2015, Congress allowed more than $2.3 billion to be released. But the fund balance has been falling since 2017, as changes in federal prosecution strategies have netted less in fines for the fund. Though Biden in 2021 signed a law allowing more sources of money to go into the fund, it hasn’t yet grown back.

The Department of Justice did not respond to requests for comment.

Versions of the congressional spending plans being considered by both the U.S. House and the Senate include a $700 million reduction going toward states in the federal 2024 fiscal year, compared to the year before. That would amount to a 36% cut.

In California, the state from 2020 to 2023 distributed an average of $230 million a year in crime victims grants. Next year, it’s expecting to get between $105 and $132 million from the federal government.

Krista Colon, senior director of public policy strategies at the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, said the seesawing federal funding shows the state should help keep these programs funded on its own.

“We think it’s really essential to provide that stability,” she said.

Without it, the hundreds of organizations across the state that receive the grants are scrambling to keep their services afloat.

In southern California, the crime victim grants make up about half of the East Los Angeles Women’s Center’s budget. They pay for services such as a 24-hour, bilingual rape crisis center that responds to calls from three local hospitals, a transitional housing service where survivors can stay for two years as they get back on their feet and services tailored toward sexual assault or human trafficking victims in low-wage industries commonly reliant on immigrant labor. There already is a 100-person waitlist for therapy, and beds in the housing programs are “always filled,” said executive director Barbara Kappos.

“I am desperately looking at other ways to fund these programs,” Kappos said.

Jeanne Kuang is a reporter with CalMatters.

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