Since lockdown, Southeast domestic violence shelters have seen fewer calls for help. Staff worry about why.

The Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis, an emergency shelter for domestic violence victims in Anchorage. (Kirsten Swann/Alaska Public Media)

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut much of the country down in mid-March, domestic violence shelters saw fewer people seeking sanctuary from abusive partners. In Southeast Alaska, trends have varied by community.

These past few months, those facing domestic violence have been stuck choosing between living with strangers amidst a pandemic and an abusive home. Recently, fewer people than usual are spending the night at Women in Safe Homes’ shelter in Ketchikan.

“Where, where is everybody? ’Cause we know it’s still out there.”

That’s WISH Shelter Manager Rebecca Yunker. She says that in Ketchikan they usually have around 20 people at a time at the shelter. Recently, there’s been less than half that. She said the number of people calling for assistance has also dropped drastically in Ketchikan and Wrangell.

Ketchikan Police Department Deputy Chief Eric Mattson says the department has received fewer calls related to domestic violence this year than last year.

“The trend it looks like is, one, we’ve had fewer domestic violence related phone calls, and certainly fewer domestic violence related arrests,” he said.

So far this year Ketchikan police reportedly responded to 252 domestic violence calls. That’s 8% less than last year. Domestic violence arrests are down by over 35%.

In Sitka, the situation looks a little different. 

Sitkans Against Family Violence, a nonprofit that runs a shelter in Sitka, also saw fewer people in their shelter this summer. But unlike Ketchikan and Wrangell, Executive Director Natalie Wojcik said crisis calls in Sitka tripled during the shutdown. 

“My guess is that it had to do with, with having to be quarantined with someone who’s abusive and all the stressors that were caused from the pandemic, but I can’t say for sure,” she said.

And when the state started to allow businesses to reopen in this spring, she says her shelter saw an influx in particularly violent calls. She calls this an increase in “lethality,” in which abusers become progressively more dangerous. 

“I guess what was strange for us is Sitka’s a pretty small town and we definitely see lethality here but we don’t often see a ton of it at once, most of the time for us at SAFV it kind of spread out over time, and we had like a week where it was constant.”

Since then, Wojcik says call numbers have dropped off and remain lower than normal. But she says she’s concerned for Sitka’s homeless population. Her shelter only houses women and children, and without a shelter in Sitka, men without a home are left without options. 

Meanwhile in Juneau, AWARE shelter executive director Mandy Cole says she’s seeing about as many people at the shelter as she usually does — a rebound from the lows of the lockdown. Still, she’s worried people might have to make a dangerous choice: to stay in an abusive home, or take the risk of living in close quarters at AWARE’s shelter during the pandemic.

“My greatest fear of course is that people are so worried about the virus that they, that they don’t reach out for help when they really need it,” Cole said.

Despite this fear, all three shelters have taken extra precautions against the spread of COVID-19. They all say they have sufficient access to sanitation and protective equipment and testing.

Back in Ketchikan, Yunker says she’s worried that pandemic fears are the reason fewer people are seeking help. 

“It sounds weird but I hope our numbers go back up ’cause we know it’s there, and we hope that they start coming back in and receiving our services.”

She said she’s not even sure people know that the shelter is still open. For now, they’re trying to get the word out and figure out how to reach those in need.