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Compass Center fills the gap in emergency housing for victims of domestic violence

The speakers at the Safe Homes Celebration on June 4, 2021 gather for a photo. From left to right: Gary Bowen, PhD, Dean of UNC School of Social Work; Natalia Rivadenerya, Emergency Housing Coordinator, Compass Center for Women and Families; Gillian Hare, Board Chair, Compass Center for Women and Families; Martin Baucom, Vice-President for Development, UNC Health Foundation; Jeannie Denuo, Safe Homes Campaign Co-Chair and Compass Center Board Member; Loryn Clark, Deputy Town Manager for the Town of Chapel Hill. Photo courtesy of Ann Simpson/Compass Center.

Orange County has not had a domestic violence emergency shelter for 30 years. The Compass Center for Women and Families’ Safe Homes, New Lives program changes that.

The campaign launched last July with the goal of raising $675,000 to fund three apartments across the Orange County area for the next three years. These apartments serve as shelters for victims of domestic violence to stay for up to three months.

When the campaign wrapped up in early June, Compass Center had raised $1 million.

With that money, the center is able to fund a fourth apartment, which will be available to house clients by the end of this year.

Natalia Rivadeneyra, the emergency housing coordinator for Compass Center who designed the program, places victims in shelters and then supports them while they stay there. She said that during that time, she works with them to achieve their goals, which can vary from client to client.

“I like to tell them that I'm their kind of personal assistant, their tool,” she said. “Some clients escape the abusive environment and need to get their identifying papers. They left everything because they were running away. And then other clients just need someone to talk to, they have been completely isolated and they need to process.”

Clients also have access to all of the services that Compass Center provides, including English- and Spanish-language support groups, lawyer referrals and court advocates who go to court with the client, a crisis hotline that operates 24/7 and a mental health program, Rivadeneyra said. Staff can also refer the client to any outside resources.

The apartments have already housed clients, and Rivadeneyra said she’s created a strong bond with each of them.

“(A client) said, ‘I thought no one would ever care. I thought no one would ever, no one would ever help me, but you're helping me. I can breathe,’” she said.

Once the client transitions out of the apartment, they have access to transitional housing and can receive financial support for rent and other housing costs through the center’s Housing Micro-Grant Program.

Compass Center’s goal is to raise enough money to expand the program to six apartments and add an additional case manager to help more survivors.

The need for domestic violence emergency housing

The idea for Safe Homes came from a community needs assessment done by researchers at the UNC School of Social Work, which included participation from over 200 Orange County leaders, professionals, service providers and survivors. 

The assessment determined that emergency housing was one of the most critical gaps in serving domestic violence victims in Orange County.

Rebecca Macy, a professor in the School of Social Work and one of the researchers who worked on the assessment, has been studying intimate partner violence for 19 years. She said housing is one of the biggest obstacles in attempting to leave an abusive relationship.

“Survivors said to us, ‘I stayed in a relationship much too long that was violent because I just didn't have any place else to go. I didn't want to uproot my kids again,’” Macy said.

In 2019, 253 people requested emergency housing, but the Compass Center was only able to place 15 adults and five children for brief hotel stays.

Prior to the Safe Homes project, the only other option was traditional shelters, which Macy said can have downsides, like not being accessible for victims with disabilities or being unable to accommodate people who don't speak English or have dietary restrictions.

“Shelters work for a lot of people, but they don’t work for everybody,” Macy said.

Macy also said perpetrators might know the location of a shelter. Research has shown that one of the most dangerous times for people who are trying to leave an abusive relationship is the initial time when they start to separate and try to establish safety.

After conversations with community stakeholders, they settled on the scattered emergency housing strategy as the best way to meet the needs of the community. 

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“Having a place where people could go to be safe to kind of begin to get their lives back together, to reflect and to begin to implement some safety strategies was clearly the most pressing need that we were hearing from the community,” Macy said.

Prevalence of domestic violence in Orange County

Jeannie Denuo, a member of the Compass Center’s Board of Directors and a chairperson of the Safe Homes campaign, said that during the fundraising campaign for Safe Homes, people didn’t know the county had no emergency housing options. 

“Nobody thought there was a need,” Denuo said. “To be honest, a lot of people in Orange County think, well, it just doesn't happen here.”

Amber Keith-Drowns, the victim services coordinator for the Orange County Sheriff’s Office’s Special Victims Unit, said the number of domestic violence protective orders has steadily climbed over the years. 

In 2019, the sheriff’s office filed 121 protective orders, according to information from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. In 2020, 164 orders were filed. 

In both 2019 and 2020, around 94 percent of the total clients the SVU served were victims of domestic violence. But the actual number of clients who were victims increased from 1,236 in 2019 to 1,457 in 2020. 

Denuo said that once they explained the need, people were eager to help.

“It is so heartwarming to see the incredible generosity of people,” Denuo said. “(It) was really great to see.”

Some of the apartment furniture was donated by community members, and Rivadeneyra said many community partners help the program. For example, the hunger-relief organization PORCH helps with groceries, and A Lotta Love helped decorate the first apartment.

The UNC School of Social Work has started planning a follow-up evaluation study with Compass Center that will hopefully be launched late summer or early fall.

Macy said the assessment was a community effort.

“It wouldn't have happened if people didn't show up and give their opinions, their time and energy,” Macy said. “It really renewed my faith in our community.”

Denuo said Compass Center relies heavily on volunteers and is always looking for people who are interested. To learn more about volunteering, visit the center’s website.

To make a donation to Safe Homes, visit the project’s webpage. The program also has an Amazon wishlist of items it needs.


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