Women and children fleeing abuse flood shelter in Anchorage

Influx is straining resources far beyond capacity.

For about six months now, the number of women fleeing abusive boyfriends and husbands has been swelling Anchorage’s only shelter for battered women beyond its capacity.

Since the problem surfaced months ago, the overcrowding is still overwhelming staff at the Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis, or AWAIC, shelter.

Shelter workers don’t have an answer on how to relieve the problem and are looking to others in Anchorage for answers. But with no solution in sight, the crisis is deepening.

Last week, the shelter was 65 percent over capacity, with beds for 52 people but 86 sleeping there. The fire marshal has told staff they can’t go past 90. Seven women and their children seeking refuge from abusers were on the waiting list.

Not since it began tracking in 1978 has the downtown shelter seen such high numbers, said executive director Judy Cordell. The numbers have remained steadily high since January, she said.

No one knows for sure why so many women are showing up asking for help. They come with broken bones. They come with infants in their bruised arms. Some come to the shelter before they go to the hospital — because their abuser can’t follow them past the building’s rigid security of double locked doors and razor-wire fence.

To accommodate the influx, staff have brought in cots, converted playrooms into bedrooms, and told victims to be patient during their stays, which average 16 days.

“It’s crowded in the bedrooms, the bathroom, the laundry room, kitchen, parking lot, at the front desk,” said one shelter resident who didn’t want to be named because she is still scared of her abuser. “There’s no more room.”

When she first got to the shelter 10 weeks ago, she and her three children slept on cots in the computer room.

It’s not just dealing with less room that is making things difficult, the woman said.

“There are so many different women, so many different backgrounds and cultures,” she said. “We all do things differently. And we’re all women so we think we’re always right.”

Cooking is different. Children’s bedtimes are different. Disciplining is different.

Tensions can escalate, she said.

“AWAIC needs another AWAIC,” she said. “Just like there’s a McDonald’s over here. And there’s a McDonald’s over there. There needs to be AWAICs all over the place.”

Maybe it’s the economy, Cordell says. Maybe more families are moving up from the Lower 48 because they hear Alaska’s economy is still doing well. Maybe people are moving in from the Bush.

Victim advocate Amanda Matthews, who’s worked at the shelter for nine years, likes to think that more women are seeking help because there is more awareness about domestic violence and how it shouldn’t be tolerated — meaning there aren’t more cases now than before, but rather women are choosing to get out of abusive relationships. But she believes that’s wishful thinking.

More realistically, she thinks, it’s that in the past maybe these women could have afforded a flight out of state or had friends to financially support then but now those resources are tighter.

Cordell said, “It’s not like this snuck up on us. We are all challenged with it and we’ve been working on it for months.”

This past week, Cordell sent an e-mail out to a long list of recipients, including at least one legislator, asking them about how to handle turning away women, something which she says is very dangerous. “I am searching for any feedback or thoughts anyone might have re effective ways to approach the turn away challenge.”

Other shelters around town were reporting increased numbers earlier this year — such as the Brother Francis Shelter and Clare House — and people blamed the economy, even though Anchorage’s unemployment rate has remained relatively stable. But at least a few shelters said on Sunday that with the good weather, their numbers are down again.

AWAIC administrators say they don’t know what the solution is. Throwing money at the problem won’t necessarily fix it, they say. “At this point, we are asking the community, are there any more options?” Matthews said.

“I don’t have the answers. We’ve never been faced with this,” she said.



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