By Anthony Schick, Contributing writer
Maria spent one week in Portland with her abuser. Her husband, who had controlled her psychologically, financially and physically for the past four years tricked her into leaving their California home together. He told her he had friends in Portland. He didn’t. He told her he wanted to leave problems behind and start a new life together. Then he struck her and their daughter within days of arriving. Then he was gone, back to California, and she didn’t follow. Maria found herself alone and abused with two children in a foreign city.
“He brought me here by deceiving me,” Maria said through a translator. She wished not to reveal her full identity for personal safety. “He had another woman in California. His ‘idea’ was for him to end the other relationship and move to Portland. But the way I understand it, he got rid of us so he could start a life with the other woman.”
Eight years later, Maria recalled that through support groups at El Programa Hispano and Human Solutions, she realized how far back the abuse went. First came the verbal abuse, usually after he drank and used drugs – crystal meth on at least one occasion. Then came the blows. Through those support groups, Maria also noticed similarities to her childhood and the real reason she wanted her abuser out of her life.
As a child, both Maria’s parents physically abused her. She was also sexually abused. She witnessed her father holding a knife over her mother (an incident all survived thanks to her uncle’s intervention). And Maria’s father, like her husband years later, withheld money from his family to fund an alcohol addiction and an extramarital affair.
“I didn’t want my children to have the life I had,” she said.
So Maria began a new life in Northeast Portland with her two children, where they shared a house with another family, and the three slept in the corner of a living room. Welfare helped them scrape by until she found a job that allowed them to find a new, safer home.
Maria accessed permanent shelter and services soon after leaving her abuser; many don’t. Despite a declining number in Portland’s reported domestic violence incidents in the past three years, shelters are becoming more crowded. Access to shelter and other resources remains most difficult in East Portland, which is at once the location of 40 percent of all domestic violence incidents, the city’s most populous precinct and the Police Bureau’s family services division.
As of Sept. 9, officially, it will also be the location of the city’s newest hub of resources: the “one-stop” Gateway Center for Domestic Violence Services. The $2 million start-up project with operating costs estimated near $700,000 is the first of its kind in the state. Martha Strawn Morris, director of the Gateway center, says the day-to-day operations of the facility will be survivor-oriented.
“We’ll do what they ask. There are no hoops to jump through. Those seeking our help are vulnerable to further trauma during help-seeking, and we’re very conscious of that,” she said.
The center’s on-site partners include the Oregon Department of Human Services, Volunteers of America, Lifeworks Northwest and the Sexual Assault Resource Center. The ODHS provides temporary assistance in the form of housing grants and food assistance, while Volunteers of America provides a child/youth advocacy and on-site child care. The Sexual Assault Resource Center provides services for sexually trafficked teens, and Lifeworks Northwest provides mental health and alcohol and drug assessments.
At the heart of the center’s work are navigators — advocates who guide visitors through the various processes of the center, and help survivors determine which services they need. The center’s navigators come from six different agencies including Bradley Angle, the YWCA, the Native American Youth and Family Center, the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, Ecumenical Ministry’s Russian Oregon Social Services and Catholic Charities.
The Multnomah County Sherriff’s Office provides security for the building, which along with drawn shades and a secluded respite that Strawn Morris referred to as a “living room,” is intended to make survivors feel more at ease.
Legal Aid Services of Oregon is also an on-site partner, providing civil legal assistance, and the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office provides prosecution services. The Gateway center provides the only access point other than the downtown courthouse in which survivors can seek restraining orders and attend hearings, via videoconference.
Strawn Morris said feedback for the center showed many survivors were anxious about facing their abuser in court and about being exposed when they sought legal action. She hopes the Gateway center can alleviate some of these problems by providing another access point and more comfortable location. Of the 3,000 restraining orders filed in Multnomah County each year, Strawn Morris expects nearly a third of them to pass through the Gateway center at 10305 East Burnside.
For Sgts. Margaret Bahnson and Tina Jones of the Police Bureau’s family services division, this added point of access could bridge a gap between authorities’ and victims’ priorities. Bahnson said domestic violence survivors are most concerned with ensuring the immediate safety of themselves and their children, and following through on prosecution is not a top priority.
Amy Holmes Hehn, Senior Deputy District Attorney, said a significant number of victims don’t follow through on prosecution. She said the reasons for this vary from fearing ramifications with their abuser, feeling overwhelmed with a variety of other problems, or fear of the criminal justice system itself.
“Or they could be in love. They may still feel bonded,” she said. “I would say the most common reason is that they don’t want to see him prosecuted.”
Though Maria secured a restraining order, she admitted the very thought of it was difficult. She had never taken legal action against her husband before, she said, and she felt he was still the father of her children.
“That is troubling to a lot of police,” Bahnson said of the trend. “Some victims think that if you just press charges everything will be OK, but that’s not the case. She cited the possibility of first time offenders getting probation and eventually a delayed sentencing, which could cause further harm to a victim.
“My hope is that being able to access an environment like (the Gateway center), one that is safe and supportive, will reduce the fear that some victims have of the process,” Holmes Hehn said. “It could be that we see more victims willing to join us in the process. Coming downtown is a big barrier for a lot of people. It’s scary.”
Two and a half months after Maria moved to Portland, she secured a restraining order. It was the first time she’d ever been downtown.
“I was so nervous about finding the place, and getting lost, and what was going to happen in court,” she said. Still in the process of filing her immigration papers, Maria feared problems when she stepped into the court.
“I kept telling myself, ‘I hope no one asks me anything,’” she said.
She said getting to the courthouse from her east side home was an endeavor in itself. Maria eventually lost her restraining order when she failed to meet the deadline to reactivate it.
Jones and Bahnson agreed that language is also a barrier their department faces often. Located in the same complex as their office, the Gateway center’s staff boasts the ability to speak a collective nine different languages.
Portland Police Bureau data shows 46 percent of domestic violence cases occur against minorities, and Strawn Morris said that group, along with immigrants, is the most commonly underserved.
According to census data accessed via the Portland Plan online, the East Portland district has the city’s highest percentage of foreign-born population. Likewise, 40 percent of all domestic violence crimes happen east of 82nd Avenue, and close to 80 percent occur east of the Willamette River, making the new location an apt one.
Strawn Morris said that information wasn’t ignored in the center’s planning. “Public services are really making an effort to locate services where people need them,” she said. “I think it’s been hard for some to keep up with the population explosion to the east.”
The east neighborhood district has 17 percent of its land zoned for multiple family dwelling, the highest in a city that averages 10 percent. Its $17,500 per capita income is also 40 percent lower than the city average. Domestic violence experts point to these indicators of neighborhood disadvantage to show stressed households and the need for services.
Jean DeMaster, executive director of the East Portland-based Human Solutions, said a large portion of the homeless families served at Human Solutions have experiences with family violence. Many of the homeless families who are served at Human Solutions are single mothers with children —- and over half of the women report having been victims of domestic violence.
“I think that in East Portland we get a share of the resources, but that share is not nearly big enough,” she said. “We don’t get a share proportional to the number of low income people who are here and in need of help.”
The area’s long-suffering infrastructure also means added challenges to the issue of family violence.
A 2003 study from the Journal of Quantitative Criminology suggests domestic violence has strong ties to social disorganization. Based on studies that structurally disadvantaged areas have weaker social bonds and higher crime rates, the report argues such neighborhoods isolate potential victims, and could put them at greater risk.
As Maria said of her situation, “I knew nobody here. All of my family was in Mexico. I had no support.”
Weak neighborhood structure also causes problems for survivors of domestic violence, whether they are seeking legal action or support groups.
Annie Neal of the Multnomah County Domestic Violence Coordinator’s Office said that in terms of physical buildings with services readily available, pointing out support groups in particular, the east side is lacking.
“However, some offices are scattered throughout Portland and have staff who meet clients in areas safe and convenient for them,” she said. “It makes it hard if you have to go an hour and a half on the bus, or if you live in an area that has no sidewalks, across busy streets.”
DeMaster pointed to shelter as the service most needed — in East Portland and across Multnomah County.
“In East Portland, there isn’t a domestic violence shelter,” she said, noting that East Portland makes up for two geographic thirds of the county. “People from East County have to be able to travel a long ways to get to a shelter.”
Neal sees both good and bad aspects to that. “Location of shelter is sometimes tricky for survivors. If they’re going to be at a shelter and the shelter is in their area, that might not be safe. But on the other hand, you can’t have people with no cars set up in a place far away”
For DeMaster, that is the crux of the problem. “To not have an emergency shelter means that we have to have methods of getting people into shelter across town. We don’t have those methods,” she said.
Data from the Multnomah county domestic violence coordinator’s office shows more than 10,600 requests for shelter turned away – roughly 56 percent. The 2009 data does not account for multiple requests from the same individual.
Rebecca Peatow Nickels, executive director of the Women’s Crisis Line, said 75 percent of the calls her organization receives are for domestic violence, and since 2007 there has been a dramatic increase in the demand for shelter beds. She estimated 60 percent of their requests for shelter cannot be met. In those situations, Nickels said safety planning occurs. That could mean advising the victim to ride the max, find a 24-hour café or possibly stay in the situation.
“It’s definitely a very big problem,” she said. “Survivors aren’t even trying to leave because they think there isn’t anywhere to go.”
Emergency shelter, however, is a last resort, Neal said. Survivors would much rather move themselves and their children into permanent affordable housing, which is at a higher premium than shelter space.
The result, Nickels said, is more shelter stays lasting the maximum amount of time, clogging up bed space for new survivors in need. Families in need of multiple beds have a particularly difficult time.
The result: women remaining in dangerous situations or entering homelessness.
Maria spent a month and a half on the floor of a living room with her two kids. But the other tenants were using drugs frequently, making that stay as dangerous as the home she left behind. She eventually escaped that, too.
“I was spending everything I had,” she said. “We moved three times in three months.”
Maria continues to search for work, to fight for legal custody of her children and to finish her immigration paperwork. If Maria must return to Mexico, she will lose her children unless she can prove she has legal custody. Eight years after leaving her abuser, Maria says the biggest challenge is so much left unresolved.
“It was my preference to raise them alone — it’s very hard for me, but the pain was worse than the provision was good.”