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Chicago Police Department questionnaire for victims of domestic violence

A Chicago Police Department questionnaire for victims of domestic violence.

Ashlee Rezin

Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline deluged with calls, hindered by lack of shelter beds

Domestic violence survivors looking for a safe place to stay are driving a surge in contacts to the state’s hotline, which has seen its volume of calls, texts and messages from those experiencing abuse nearly double since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Compounding the problem, Chicago and the suburbs are experiencing critical shortages of available accommodations in domestic violence shelters.

“There is just not enough beds in the entire state,” said Rebecca Darr, CEO and president of WINGS, which operates two shelters in the Chicago area.

“There’s nothing harder on my direct line staff to have to turn someone away because we can’t accommodate, but that’s the reality,” Darr told the Chicago Sun-Times.

The troubling findings are found in a new report from anti-domestic violence advocates.

According to the report, the Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline saw a 90% increase in calls, texts and messages in 2023, compared to pre-pandemic levels.

And the majority of calls received in 2023 were for requests for shelter, demonstrating an increased demand and inadequate capacity, according to “Measuring Safety: Gender-Based Violence in Illinois,” an annual report released by The Network: Advocating Against Domestic Violence.

The network, which operates the state’s hotline, reported 47,349 contacts made in 2023 — up 27% from 2022 and 90% from 2019.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline has not yet released its data for 2023, but it too reported a “historic high” in 2022, with more than 2,000 calls, chats, and texts received per day.

Last year, Chicago alone accounted for 16,123 of the contacts made to the Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline, a 26% increase from the previous year. It was the first time the city reported an increase in three years.

‘Safe housing is critical’

The city neighborhoods reporting the highest numbers of calls were East Side, South Chicago and South Shore, according to the network.

The hotline received a record-high 17,972 contacts requesting shelter last year, up 45% from 2022.

In Chicago, there were no beds or cribs available in domestic violence shelters for 124 days last year— more than a third of the year, according to the report.

The surrounding suburbs had similar challenges, reporting 107 days where there were no beds or cribs available in domestic violence shelters.

And funding for new beds can be scarce.

It is a common misconception that shelters are paid for and operated by the government, Darr said. WINGS’ first shelter in the Chicago area took about $9 million to build. Expansion requires additional investment.

Reaching out for help only to be told there are no beds can put survivors in an incredibly perilous situation, advocates said.

“The most dangerous time for a survivor is when she moves toward safety, and safe housing is critical to ensure a survivor’s physical safety,” said Amanda Pyron, executive director of The Network: Advocating Against Domestic Violence. “Survivors need access to housing when it’s safe for them to leave, which may mean they have to flee quickly with few of their belongings.”

And that is when abusers can be at their most dangerous.

“As people who cause harm begin to lose control, they often escalate their violence,” Pyron said. “Safe housing is critical at this inflection point.”

Request for shelter was the most common reason for contacting the Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline in 2023, followed by general information, legal advocacy for orders of protection, crisis intervention and emotional support.

Advocates say the lack of beds led to some survivors making repeated calls to the hotline, contributing to the increase in contacts. Advocates also noted the increase in calls could be attributed to “the influx of new migrants who often have experience with Gender Based Violence.”

‘Recognizing how lethal it’s become’

Darr believes the increase in calls could also be driven by a heightened awareness of both the hotline and the potential danger of domestic violence — particularly from the increase in stories on domestic violence homicides in the area.

“I think people are seeing those stories and recognizing how lethal it’s become,” Darr said. “When someone says they’re gonna kill you, they probably will, and so you have to call for help.”

This year the network chose to break its annual report into five volumes, allowing advocates to dive deeper into key areas of their work, such as the hotline.

“From our experience working with survivors, we know the gap in accessing emergency shelter via the hotline only scratches the surface of the challenges survivors may face with housing, and for future volumes, we will look at the nuisances of our housing landscape in a broader context outside of emergency shelter because this is the highest area of need for survivors,” said Maralea Negron, the network’s director of policy, advocacy, and research.

The second volume of the report focuses on the network’s Survivor Fund, established in 2020 to provide financial assistance to survivors of gender-based violence (GBV) affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2023, the City of Chicago Department of Family and Support Services allocated $5 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and an additional $1 million in city funding to the fund to help extend financial relief.

That helped the network disburse $6,384,506.61 in cash and rental assistance to 5,813 survivors last year.

“Funding for DV survivors instills a feeling in me that I forgot I could feel,” wrote one Survivor Fund recipient. “That feeling is hope.”

Darr said she is often referring survivors to the Network’s fund because the immediate cash assistance can be “life-changing.”

Continued investments from private donors and other state and local governments are needed to maintain the fund, according to the report.

For anyone seeking help, the Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline is available any time of day at (877) 863-6338.

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