TUPELO - The novel coronavirus has caused some regional emergency shelters to prepare for a potentially growing need for services as state safer-at-home orders reach an end.

Due to the previous shelter-in-place and safer-at-home orders, advocates at S.A.F.E. Inc. worried victims were being forced to be around abusers.

“With the shelter-in-place order, the abuser was possibly always there with the victim, so being able to have access to a phone could be an issue,” said Executive Director Stephanie Johnson. “A lot of times with domestic violence, the abuser can be controlling.”

S.A.F.E. Inc., which serves Alcorn, Benton, Itawamba, Lee, Pontotoc, Prentiss, Tippah, Tishomingo and Union counties, anticipated an increase in crisis calls but has not seen that. Instead, people are requesting more nonresidential services that can be completed over the phone.

The shelter usually stays at 75 percent capacity but has seen a decrease in its residential services, said Johnson. Residents who were staying prior to COVID-19 took advantage of their rehousing program, while others may have felt more comfortable staying with family or elsewhere rather than stay in the shelter. The shelter has nine bedrooms, but in order to socially distance, staff limits rooms to one person or one family when before, they may have two single people share.

“We decreased our capacity (by) half, and we’re still doing that just to take precautions,” Johnson said.

S.A.F.E. Inc. received calls from people who needed housing assistance during the pandemic. Its housing program is providing rapid rehousing and homeless assistance, and Johnson anticipates an increased need for help with utilities, rent and mortgage payments rather than domestic violence and assault as state eviction and utilities moratoriums lift on June 1 and May 26 respectively.

Faith Haven, a 24-hour shelter that provides emergency care for abused, neglected or abandoned children, is preparing to see referrals and a higher number of abuse cases as the state reopens, said executive director Jackie Smith. Many referrals and reports come from schools, childcare and other adults who work with children outside of their homes, and Smith said when those avenues closed, CPS was left with less avenues to see signs of abuse or neglect. Some reports have been made on an emergency basis by law enforcement.

“When we went into shelter-in-place, it was like everything stood still for a moment and a lot of abuse probably hasn’t been reported as of yet because there aren’t a lot of outside people coming into personal domains,” Smith said.

Sheila Brand, executive director of Sally Kate Winters Family Services, worried that families are feeling the burden of financial stress, anxiety caused by uncertainty, limited food and supply resources, layoffs, and school closures. In an email statement, she recognized many local children may have faced dangerous living situations during shelter-in-place, with those who abuse children potentially becoming increasingly violent or other caregivers turning to abuse who don’t normally abuse their children.

Advocates look to research that shows the majority of child abuse cases stem from direct family members, close relatives, or guardians as reasons to be concerned. Brand said with these being “the very people children are required to be with 24/7 right now,” children may be at greater risk with lesser chances of outside involvement. Sally Kate Winters Family Services began radio and television commercials promoting mandated reporting of child abuse and providing the contact number for the state hotline in April as part of the Child Abuse Prevention Month campaign.

Referrals are made through child abuse hotline reports and child protection services investigations. With less reports being made, Brand said there have been fewer referrals for services.

Safe Haven, which serves Lowndes, Oktibbeha, Clay, Monroe, Attala, Calhoun, Chickasaw, Montgomery, Webster and Choctaw counties, currently has no shelter residents but remains operating. Executive Director Joyce Tucker said she was not concerned about increased crises due to COVID-19 because those in harm’s way could contact law enforcement and still be directed to resources.

The biggest challenge was obtaining necessary PPE and disinfecting materials in order to make the shelter safe. Staff must also meet the challenge of physically distancing within the shelter, which Tucker said is new for both staff and those seeking services. The group received donations of masks from the Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence, but still have a need for disinfecting spray and wipes.

S.A.F.E. Inc.’s outreach work has been impacted during this time. Johnson said prior to COVID-19, their programs were full, but requests have decreased with COVID-19. Jeans for Justice, an annual fundraiser for sexual assault awareness, was held virtually and didn't raise as much as usual.

“I don’t want people to think that we aren’t providing the service or that there is not a need, because there is a great need in our community,” Johnson said.

Advocates emphasize that they have remained open since day one of the pandemic and will continue serving the community. Faith Haven staff are focusing on emotionally supporting children during this time. Children at the shelter were unable to go to court, family visits or even physically see their social worker due to COVID-19 safety precautions, which has caused anxiety and cabin fever for many children.

Similar facilities shut down due to the possibility of spread, and Smith said Faith Haven had previously shut intake for two to three weeks before calls from social workers convinced them the need was still strong to continue admittance. The shelter shifted to having stronger admittance standards to ensure incoming children aren’t showing symptoms, clothes are washed during intake and the facility is disinfected daily.

The shelter currently serves six to seven children.

“Facilities like ours are a very important part of our community, and I want our community to know that we are here and we are doing our very best to make sure we are providing a safe, temporary home for these children,” Smith said.


Twitter: @Danny_McArthur_

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