Washtenaw United: SafeHouse Center faces greater demand to help victims of domestic violence
ABOUT CHRISTINE WATSON:
Christine Watson is the Executive Director at SafeHouse Center. She has been working with survivors of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault for more than 18 years. She started her human services work in England upon her graduation with a master’s degree in English Literature but since 2004 has lived and worked in Washtenaw County, Michigan. Christine joined SafeHouse Center in 2006 serving first as a Legal Advocate before taking over as the supervisor for the Response Team and Legal Advocacy program.
In 2022, Christine stepped into the role as Executive Director where she continues to be a support to all staff and the survivors served by SafeHouse Center. As the Executive Director, Christine also acts as a liaison with our community and engages on a local and statewide level to promote awareness, education and policy change for the direct benefit of survivors. Christine also serves as a trainer for the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards (MCOLES) and is FETI certified. Born and raised in Denmark, Christine is bilingual and is passionate about uplifting and strengthening all voices.
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'm David Fair with this week's Washtenaw United. Every week on this segment, we create time to explore issues of equity and opportunity in Washtenaw County. And sometimes, that means discussing subject matter that is rather difficult. And that is certainly the case today. The number of domestic violence and sexual assault cases are not going down. These are issues that continue to plague our community and our country. As such, dedicating time, resources, and assistance to the affected remains critical. Our guest today is the executive director of SafeHouse Center in Ann Arbor. Christine Watson took over the top job at the center in 2022, but has been working with survivors for more than 18 years now. Christine, thank you so much for making time today.
Christine Watson: It's a pleasure to be here. And it is a pleasure to have this conversation with you.
David Fair: Just how prevalent is violence against women in Washtenaw County?
Christine Watson: I think, unfortunately, as you mentioned, it's not going down. We continue to see an increase in both on the national and, certainly, also on the local level. In the last 12 months alone, we've had four domestic violence-related homicides just in Washtenaw County. And that's a really high number. We usually don't see as many as that, and it really just shows us that it's still happening, and it's very real for us.
David Fair: You know, you've been at SafeHouse Center since 2006. I've been talking about domestic violence and sexual assault on the radio for 35 years, 29 of them right here at WEMU. When I started, the Centers for Disease Control was telling us that one in three women in America would experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime. Well, I checked on the statistics again today, and it hasn't changed. And, as you mentioned, in often cases, it's going up. Given all of the added education and awareness campaigns that have been launched, are you as surprised as I am?
Christine Watson: Yes. Actually, I am. You know, as you said, I've been in this movement for a long time. I work to work myself out of a job, as we say. But unfortunately, our services are still needed, and we're still here. And I am surprised at that. I think, every day, we do the best that we can to raise awareness. I think, every day, we do the best that we can to provide that education, to show survivors that there is, you know, resources and help available. And I don't know what the missing piece is, but there's obviously still something that we need to be doing.
David Fair: You were born and raised in Denmark. Is violence against women and members of the LGBTQ community there as prevalent?
Christine Watson: Unfortunately, it is in some instances. I think the way that our society in Denmark is set up mirrors America in many ways. But I think some of the situations that we see here are global. They're not unique to the United States, and I think we see the same issues in areas, such as Europe and certainly in Denmark as well.
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and our Washtenaw United conversation with SafeHouse Center executive director Christine Watson continues. Fear plays such a major role in preventing survivors to seek assistance: fear of leaving the known for the unknown, fear of retribution, fear of what might happen to their children, fear of a system that hasn't always supported survivors. What does SafeHouse Center offer to help allay those fears?
Christine Watson: I think you bring up a great point. There is a lot of fear built into this, and I think that is what paralyzes some survivors in terms of staying in their situation. I think what we try to do at SafeHouse is to show that there is a world beyond that and that, together, we can help alleviate that fear. One of the things that we are very focused on is SafeHouse is community partnerships. We want to make sure that we can help survivors in all spaces of our community, and we can help by being a liaison and being their voice in spaces that maybe they feel they don't have a voice in. So, we work very closely with a lot of other community service providers to make sure that gaps are met, that needs are met, and also that we can work together to show survivors they're not alone. They don't have to stay in the situation that they're finding themselves in and that people are willing to listen and to, you know, to be supportive.
David Fair: The services offered by and through SafeHouse Center expand well beyond the shelter services. But that is a component of what you do. This may be unfair of me to ask of you, but can you briefly paint a word picture of what a survivor will experience when they walk through your doors?
Christine Watson: No, I appreciate the question. There is a lot of focus on our shelter. And I think especially because, as a community, we're facing somewhat of a housing crisis. So, there's a lot of demand for shelters right now. At SafeHouse, we try very much to make it a welcoming home. That's what it's supposed to represent for a survivor who's leaving a situation. Our staff are there to assist them with exploring resources, making sure that they get connected to other community resources that they need. Our shelter is supposed to serve as a temporary reprieve. We are not a permanent housing solution, and we do rely on other community resources being available in order to fully support the survivor. But we are a gateway for a path, hopefully toward sustainable, affordable, and safe housing for survivors that may come to us.
David Fair: There was a time under previous leadership where some survivors and members of the community were quite upset at the conditions inside SafeHouse Center and the manner in which some were being treated. Since you've been in charge, what improvements have been made to ensure the environment and conditions are more to standard?
Christine Watson: We obviously strive every day--every single day--that we show up to do the best that we can for the people that we serve. We take any concerns very serious, and we've done a lot of reflection over the last 18 months to speak specifically to our shelter. We have a strong partnership with Washtenaw County, and we have been working diligently with them on maintenance and making sure that our building is up to standards and also that repairs are done in a timely manner. Our building was built by the generosity of this community in the 1990s. It is well-loved. We have a lot of people who come through our shelter, and, with that, you will see some wear and tear. And we have funding that came through from the federal government as part of COVID. And it has allowed us to do some major upgrades, and those has been specifically focused on our shelter area as well.
David Fair: How many beds are there at the SafeHouse Center's shelter?
Christine Watson: Our facility is set up to have 19 bedrooms, but our bedrooms and the capacity is tied into a couple of different areas. It's tied in, first of all, to our staffing, and, unfortunately, just as many other community entities, we have been severely understaffed for the last 18 months. And that does have an impact on our capacity. The other thing that plays into how many people we're able to shelter is also the size of the families that we take in. Our rooms are set up to accommodate larger families, but, sometimes, we do have families that take up more than one room. So, that can also impact the number of rooms that are available.
David Fair: We're talking with Christine Watson on WEMU's Washtenaw United. Christine is executive director of SafeHouse Center. So, are there actually bedrooms right now that remain empty because of that understaffing?
Christine Watson: Unfortunately, yes, there is. And we're very open about that. We try and do the best that we can. We also need to make sure that we do what we're here to do. We're here to support survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault who are fleeing harmful situation. So, we're always trying to manage the expectations of how many people we can shelter versus how many people actually need shelter. And that can sometimes be a difficult balance. We want to make sure that we always have room for the people who need it.
David Fair: In addition to education and awareness campaigns and actual hands-on services, there's been more movement in the realm of public policy and legislation when it comes to intimate partner violence. Would I be correct, though, in saying that, as a society, we remain underequipped to respond and serve those in need?
Christine Watson: Yes. Right now, we are facing, again, some cuts coming from the federal government in terms of the funding that's being allocated to domestic violence and sexual assault agencies. There's a big push in the state of Michigan for us to receive funding from the state of Michigan, which is actually something that we currently do not. And I think that really highlights, like you said in the beginning, the violence is real. It still exists. It's not going down yet. The funding doesn't match the needs that we have, both as social services providers, as well as communities who are experiencing the violence.
David Fair: So, obviously, with all of the challenges that lay before you, there are some real immediate concerns. What do you hope to address over the coming year to be of even greater service?
Christine Watson: Well, we're going to continue moving forward. We're going to continue moving forward in ways in which we can listen to our community, try to get our staffing stabilized, make sure that we're able to at least try to meet the demands that we're seeing. Last month, we received in excess of 200 requests for shelter. Even if we are fully staffed and able to open up all of our rooms, that is a demand that we're not going to be able to meet on our own. So, I think, again, this is where there has to be a coordinated community response, not just to survivors, but to our community in general. We have to work together to figure out the best way. In which to support the needs that we see on a daily basis. So, that's going to continue to be our focus.
David Fair: Well, I appreciate your time and the information you've passed along today, and I will look forward to our next conversation. And I know that it sounds weird to say, but I too hope that one day you will be out of a job.
Christine Watson: I appreciate that. David. Thank you so much for this opportunity and thank you for this conversation.
David Fair: That is Christine Watson. She is executive director of SafeHouse Center serving survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. For more information on the center and to access help and services, visit our website at WEMU dot org. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and you hear it every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU-FM Ypsilanti.
Most recently, SafeHouse Center has become a recipient of United Way of Washtenaw County’s Power of the Purse Fund, which aims to support existing and emerging programs and initiatives that increase the financial capability of people who identify as women.
In February 2022, UWWC invested in the work of SafeHouse Center through a $10,000 grant in support of their efforts to provide safety, support, and resources, for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence and their children.
With this investment, SafeHouse works to facilitate a community free of domestic violence and sexual assault.
WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw County to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'
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