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Funding cuts force changes at domestic-abuse shelter

PHOENIX — When Executive Director Connie Phillips has to tell domestic-abuse victims there’s no room at the Sojourner Center’s shelters, she doesn’t know whether they will find a safe place to go. Some could be forced to stay in dangerous situations.

In 1998, a woman Sojourner had to turn away because there wasn’t space was stabbed 25 times and killed by her husband.

“Now, had we had room in shelter would she still be dead today? Maybe,” Phillips said. “I don’t know. But I can tell you she wouldn’t have died that day.”

These days, Phillips said, Sojourner is having to turn away more domestic-abuse victims because of cuts in funding administered by the Arizona Department of Economic Security. That has forced the elimination of 80 beds at two of its three shelters.

In July, DES began allocating funding for domestic-abuse shelters using a formula that takes into account a county’s population and how many of a shelter’s beds are used. The amount distributed for fiscal 2013, $11.6 million, was roughly the same as the previous year.

DES had previously awarded most funding on a competitive basis, allowing shelters like Sojourner to add beds to accommodate more victims.

For some shelters, the change meant more money. But for Sojourner it meant a loss of $474,000, about 10 percent of its budget.

Last year, Sojourner had to turn away 10 to 25 percent of the women and children who sought shelter, Phillips said.

Since July, she said, the center has been turning away 43 percent to 50 percent of those seeking shelter each month, between 114 and 142 women and children.

“Every time we turn away a family, I don’t know if I’m going to read about that same family the next day,” Phillips said. “And that’s where the tragedy of this comes.”

DES documents provided in response to a public records request showed that 17 shelters gained funding from the previous year under the new method while 15 shelters lost funds. Sojourner Center had the largest cut.

Some of the shelters that lost funding had to reduce bed space and staff, shelter officials and advocates said.

Laura Guild, domestic-violence program manager for DES, said the new method was intended to avoid duplication of services and to maximize resources.

“We really felt that using a formula and service utilization is a more fiscally responsive manner to distribute the dollars,” Guild said.

The results aren’t yet in on the overall impact of the change, Guild said, but the department is working with shelters to gauge the effect.

“Our director and everyone else in the department is very aware of the adjustments this has caused and are paying close attention,” she said.

Unmet requests for emergency shelter tracked by DES, which may be inflated due to duplicate requests, have fallen steadily since state fiscal year 2008, when there were 10,819 unmet requests until state fiscal year 2011, when there were 5,817. This year the numbers are up slightly, reaching 6,528 in fiscal year 2012, which ended June 30.

Jessye Johnson, deputy director of the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said the goal behind the formula was creating a more equitable distribution of funding.

“So the flaw was within the calculations that they used, was in the formula,” Johnson said. “Because what they intended was not what ended up happening.”

Shelters that received money for additional beds in past years, including Sojourner, suffered the deepest cuts under the new formula, Johnson said.

“Although some shelters really benefited from it, I think that ultimately, when you look at it from a holistic point of view, the fact that any shelters were hurt or devastated … hurts the entire system,” she said.

The funding change also expanded the ways centers can use domestic violence funding, giving centers flexibility to spend the money on residential or nonresidential programs.

While most shelters draw funding from multiple sources, including government funding, fundraising and private contributions, DES funding makes up a large portion of where many Arizona shelters get their money.

Kingman Aid to Abused People lost nearly $228,000 in DES funding, a 61 percent cut. The shelter was forced to reduce its space from 30 to 16 beds.

“It was pretty devastating to say the least,” Executive Director Suzanne Clarke said. “We weren’t even sure we were going to be able to stay open.”

DES has held meetings with shelters to get feedback on the new funding method.

“They are allowing us to have open conversations, which is, to me, a step in the right direction,” Clarke said. “Unfortunately it’s not going to fix anything anytime soon. We just hope we can move back in the right direction.”

At Sojourner, Connie Phillips would like to find a way to reopen the 80 beds eventually, but only when she can be sure enough funding is available to sustain the staff and services necessary to support the extra families.

“I want to be very careful that we only bring them back with sustainable funding,” Phillips said.