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June 19, 2009

Oregon State Legislature

900 Court St. NE

Salem, OR 97301


Dear Senators and Representatives,

Understanding that you are in the midst of difficult deliberations over Oregon's budget for the 2009-2011 biennium, we write to express our deep concern for the future of the critical services that aid women and families fleeing domestic violence. While current financial resources do not match the diverse needs of the state's population, social services for domestic violence victims should be preserved and expanded to ensure the safety of women and families.

Human Rights Watch is an international organization working in more than 70 countries to document human rights violations and advocate for policy reform. Our recent work in the United States includes research and advocacy on the backlog in rape-kit testing in Los Angeles and on women's access to health care in immigration detention.

The Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch recently visited Oregon and spoke with survivors of domestic violence, domestic violence service providers, and state and county government coordinators about the availability of services, including emergency shelter, to help women and children find safety from domestic violence. Our interviews revealed that the economic crisis has dangerously widened an already alarming gap between the need for services and the resources to provide them. The result is that an increasing number of requests for help have gone unmet, jeopardizing the lives and safety of a disturbingly large number of Oregon's women and families.

According to the Oregon Department of Human Services, 19,996 requests for shelter from domestic and sexual violence could not be met in 2008, a 36 percent increase over the staggering 14,739 unmet requests in 2007. The needs reflected in these numbers are dire. While domestic violence affects families of all backgrounds and economic means, the survivors who seek shelter are often those who simply have no other options for safety. One survivor told Human Rights Watch that before finding shelter, she was caught between returning to the abusive partner whom she had fled out of fear for her life or continuing to stay with her mother, whose boyfriend had attempted to sexually abuse her. Another survivor described sleeping in a car with her young daughter and teenage son for five months while she unsuccessfully searched for a shelter with available space. One woman, fleeing from a particularly severe episode of violence, sat in a hospital emergency room overnight because she had nowhere else to go, but without other options returned to her abuser the following day. 

In our interviews, service providers reported that the economic crisis has heightened the barriers that women confront in obtaining access to safe, stable, and affordable housing as a next step after emergency shelter or transitional housing. In leaving violent relationships, women may be hindered in establishing economic independence by barriers directly related to the abuse, whether they be injuries inhibiting their ability to work, a lack of income or savings, limited work experience or job skills, a poor credit history, or even a criminal record, as in the case of a survivor who told Human Rights Watch how her abuser had forced her to claim responsibility for his crimes. With Oregon currently contending with the second highest unemployment rate in the nation, and rental markets tightening due to foreclosures, obtaining employment and housing is an uphill battle for anyone, but particularly hard for women healing from abuse and contending with these obstacles.

The resulting need for survivors to stay longer in shelter means that shelters, particularly those we visited in the Portland area, can be limited in their ability to take in new residents and must turn away new cases of women fleeing violence. At Yolanda House in Portland, for example, 305 calls came in requesting shelter in a one-month period. The shelter was only able to take in three women and one child.

Unfortunately, with individual charitable giving down, corporate sponsorships disappearing, and foundation funds declining, providers have fewer resources available to meet the increased demand. In our interviews, it was evident that providers are collaborating and doing their best to do more with less, but that the loss of funds from already underfunded programs is taking a grave toll on the ability to provide victims of violence a safe haven in their times of greatest need. In particular, providers expressed concern about meeting the needs of diverse, often marginalized communities, including culturally and linguistically diverse communities, sexual and gender minorities, and people with disabilities.

The funds that the state provides to these programs through the Department of Justice and the Department of Human Services are of vital importance. As you know, in 2006, the state commissioned a study to review the funding methodology and identify core services in Oregon's response to domestic and sexual violence. Based on a conservative estimate of the prevalence of domestic and sexual violence, the study found state and federal funds would need to grow from $6.8 million to over $16 million per year to provide meaningful access to services for survivors throughout the state. To begin to bridge that gap, the legislature took a first step by increasing funding for the Oregon Domestic and Sexual Violence Services Fund (ODSVS) from $2.33 million in the 2005-2007 biennium to $4.27 for the 2007-2009 biennium so that a total $7.5 million in state and federal funds would be available for these programs in each year.

While the budget shortfall confronting the state may force painful cuts, the responsibility to protect women, men, and children from violence is a core state function that cannot be compromised. Rather, the alarming and growing gap between needed and available funds for domestic violence services warns that this is an area in which funding must increase. Availability of emergency shelters and other domestic violence services can mean the difference between life and death.-According to a study by the Intimate Partner Violence Data Collection Project, intimate partner violence accounted for 46 percent of female homicides between 1997 and 2003.

The network of programs in Oregon and support from the state have played a critical role in providing victims with safety and resources for escaping situations of violence. We urge you to safeguard the current budget of these programs and to make increased funding a priority. As one woman in a shelter told us: "Without programs like this we would be lost. They give us hope." After living with abuse for almost thirty years, she left her home when it became impossible to bear. She had just $67 in her pocket. While living in shelter, she goes out every day looking for a job and for permanent housing. "I'm going to get there," she said. "I'm starting a new chapter in my life."




Meghan Rhoad

US Researcher

Women's Rights Division

Human Rights Watch

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