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Lost grant puts shelter, victims’ advocates at risk

Debra Baptist, executive director of Bonner County Homeless Task Force, looks out the back screen door of Harmony House women's shelter in Sandpoint on Thursday. 
 (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Debra Baptist, executive director of Bonner County Homeless Task Force, looks out the back screen door of Harmony House women's shelter in Sandpoint on Thursday. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Harmony House, a shelter for domestic violence victims in Sandpoint, is on the verge of losing its funding.

And three of the four victims’ advocates in Bonner County – the women who help battered women find safe shelter, legal help and a brighter future – are at risk of losing their jobs.

For the last eight years, the shelter and victims’ advocates have been funded through a Department of Justice grant. The last two-year grant was worth $250,000 a year, enough to provide emergency assistance, legal advice, training and other support to the hundreds of women, children and some men trying to escape abusive relationships.

The Bonner County Homeless Task Force, which administers the grant, received a Department of Justice letter this month informing it that the latest grant application had been turned down.

“The county has enough money to pay for one advocate for one year, but there will be no one to first respond with law enforcement,” said Deborah Baptist, task force director. “And there’s no money to run the domestic violence shelter.”

The grant money runs out at the end of September, and in the meantime, Baptist is seeking other grants and has been encouraged to apply for the same grant for the next year.

“We’re scrambling and we’re sad,” she said, adding that they’ll try to “limp along” with volunteers as long as necessary.

The director of the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women wrote that in fiscal year 2005, $29.8 million was available for new and continuing grant-funded programs. The department received 190 proposals requesting more than $95 million, however.

“We regret that your project was not selected for funding at this time,” she wrote.

Last year, the county’s Victims Advocates Services Team (VAST) served 235 victims involved in 353 separate domestic violence incidents, and helped 287 children. They took more than 550 phone calls from women and men victims of domestic violence seeking help, according to Wendy Ramos, domestic violence case coordinator for the Bonner County Prosecutor and the supervisor of VAST.

Since the program started, about 8,000 people have been helped by the victims’ advocates.

When she heard about the rejected grant, “I was in a pretty deep depression for about a week,” she said. “When you work with and have seen the number of victims we have had over the last five years, it was devastating. It was like a death. …

“It was such a unique grant. We were spoiled by it.”

The involvement of VAST is often critical to resolving domestic violence cases, Baptist said.

“With a woman advocate sitting at the table, I’m more likely to tell her what has been going on for five years, that I have injuries in sensitive areas,” she said hypothetically. “I’m more likely to let her photograph it. I’m more likely to tell her more of my story.”

Victims’ advocates are a crucial part of responding to a domestic violence situation, said Bonner County Sheriff Elaine Savage. With the growing unreliability of grants, she said, the county should take on the financial responsibility of funding the program.

It’s too late for the county to include funding for the advocates in the coming fiscal year, however. The proposed county budget has already been published, which means any changes now in the budget must be a decrease.

If the team is reduced to just one advocate, that person would only be available to assist with court appearances and staff an office during business hours. They would not be able to respond in the middle of the night and help get a woman out of a dangerous situation.

Now, about 25 percent of the women the advocates help go to Harmony House, the domestic violence shelter. In the last eight years, 408 women and 436 children have been sheltered there. Their stays have ranged from half a day to nearly half a year.

The shelter has room for 16, but sometimes it’s full and battered women are referred to other shelters in Post Falls or Coeur d’Alene, according to shelter director Sheryl Kins.

“This safe house for abused women is the only place where women have to go to get away from their abuser,” wrote one resident of Harmony House in an open letter to the public.

“I have … been both mentally and physically abused by my husband,” wrote the resident, who did not want to be identified. “I came here, as countless other women have, to get away from him and start my life over.”

The staff at Harmony House spend much time talking with the residents about abuse, and are there 24 hours a day to support them, the woman wrote.

Another resident is staying there now with her children.

“We have been able to heal being in the safety hands of the wonderful, knowledgeable staff here,” wrote the other resident.

Baptist said the Harmony House staff are not well paid, but very dedicated. She might be able to find volunteers to run the shelter, but the utilities and other household costs need a source of income.

“We’re hoping private foundations and community people will help us see this program through until we can get this grant again,” she said.


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