The Economic Crisis: Impact on Sanctuary’s Families

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The deepening financial crisis is affecting everyone through loss of jobs, retirement savings, investment income, and many other ways. At Sanctuary for Families, it’s been a time of increasing concern about our own agency staff and services, with sharp City and State funding cuts this past year and much deeper cuts anticipated in the year ahead. Much more troubling, however, is how deeply it’s affecting our clients. 

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“Sometimes I just think it would be easier to just go back to him. I know that he could possibly kill me but…. When we lived with him he always had the refrigerator full and I never had to worry about what my baby was going to eat or what we were going to wear.  It is just really hard to watch my baby live like this.  Sometimes I don’t think it’s worth it.”

— Jen, a new Sanctuary client (October 2008)


Victims of domestic violence are facing difficult decisions in today’s weakened economy. Many feel hopeless as they try to answer seemingly impossible questions which are complicated even further when they have children:

  • Do they continue to suffer abuse or escape to a highly uncertain economic future?
  • Can they enter shelter without any certainty of affordable, safe housing at the other end of the shelter stay?
  • How do they live when benefits that don’t come close to covering the increased cost of food?
  • Can they find work in a ravaged job market? 

At a November 2008 staff meeting, Sanctuary staff had an eye-opening discussion on how our own clients are being impacted by the current economic crisis.  Counselors, attorneys, case managers, and childcare staff alike reported distressingly similar concerns:

  • Staff had observed clients displaying more serious injuries. 
  • Many clients were considering returning to batterers, with rationalizations such as “the abuse wasn’t really that bad.” 
  • For the first time in memory, children have been asking to visit Sanctuary’s food pantry.
  • Employment prospects are increasingly bleak and joblessness places clients at risk of losing their housing subsidies, which require employment.

In the face of unemployment and mounting financial stress, domestic violence escalates, becoming more frequent, more violent, and, in too many instances, homicidal.  A 2004 study by the National Institute of Justice reported that women whose male partners experienced two or more periods of unemployment over five years were three times more likely to be abused. 

In the current recession, the impact is evident:  the National Domestic Violence Hotline witnessed an 18% increase in calls in October 2008 over October 2007.  Domestic violence programs report that victims experience an increase in abuse in part because out-of-work abusers have more opportunity to batter—and victims have fewer opportunities to reach out for help.Chilling news items on recent unemployment- and poverty-related murders illustrate this grim reality.

Last November, Sanctuary counselors rushed to a Bronx homeless shelter to provide counseling to two children after they witnessed their father breaking into their shelter apartment and shooting their mother and then himself.  In that case, Sanctuary also provided support groups to dozens of other shelter children who had known the family and were traumatized by the shooting deaths.

Beyond the documented increases in violence, the economic crisis also affects survivors of domestic violence.

  • Batterers are increasingly failing to pay child and spousal support, causing Sanctuary’s overwhelmingly indigent and working poor clients to struggle even harder to cover basic necessities. 
  • The tightening job market greatly diminishes the odds of finding living-wage employment—especially given the spotty or non-existent work history that often goes hand in hand with controlling, abusive relationships. 
  • Landlords, who may be facing foreclosure themselves, are much more aggressive about collecting payments, and less inclined to take tenants who have housing subsidies.

In the face of this escalating need, Sanctuary and other domestic violence agencies across New York City and the country are stretched thin.  Many are being forced to cut programs or shut their doors altogether.  Federal, state, and city budgets are being slashed, and private donations are down.  With these limitations, Sanctuary and other peer agencies are working hard to “do more with less.” 

Unfortunately there are limits to the services Sanctuary and other domestic violence agencies can provide.  In 2007, the National Network to End Domestic Violence conducted a 24-hour poll of domestic violence programs nation-wide to get a snapshot of how many clients were receiving services.  The report showed that while 53,000 women, men, and children were being served, another 7,700 victims who sought services had been turned away due to insufficient staff or funds.

At Sanctuary, scores of volunteers, from pro bono attorneys to Board members to childcare volunteers, help Sanctuary to continue serving victims of domestic violence. We are lucky also to have exceptionally generous donors who continue to come through for us even in these difficult times.  Thanks to all of this hard work and financial support, Sanctuary is able to continue offering new resources to clients:  from a new economic and housing independence program for families exiting shelters, to a beautifully renovated in-kind clothing boutique—fully financed and coordinated by volunteers. 

With this kind of selfless support, and our core clinical, legal, and shelter services fundamentally intact, Sanctuary and our clients will get through these hard times and look forward to better days ahead, and look forward to your support in doing so.

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