Column: Fox Valley domestic violence shelters running out of space

Column: Fox Valley domestic violence shelters running out of space

When Linda Maranda took over the reins of Mutual Ground in August, the new CEO of Aurora’s domestic violence shelter knew she would be dealing with a generous community but also plenty of challenges.

Calls to hotlines all across the state are on the rise, according to a recent report that indicated the Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline recorded a 90% increase in calls, texts and messages since the pandemic, and a record high 17,972 contacts for requests for shelter in 2022, up 45% from the previous year.

Simply stated, says Network: Advocating Against Domestic Violence, which runs the hotline, Illinois is not equipped to meet that need.

That includes shelters in the Fox Valley.

“In an ideal world we would have all these empty beds. The bottom line is, wow, we are busier than ever,” said Maranda, noting Mutual Ground hotline calls have seen an uptick of 25% in the last year.

Even more alarming, the Aurora shelter has turned away 30% more people than last year because the 28-bed shelter is filled to capacity.

“We are well beyond where we were last year,” Maranda said, looking out on a playground bustling with small children who often accompany the adults using those 28 beds.

“We want to expand,” she said, then quickly added, “No. Make that we need to expand.”

It’s writing that has been on the wall for a while now, which is why Mutual Ground is at the beginning of an $18 million capital development campaign. Thanks to what Maranda described as “legislative champions,” that goal is now down to $13 million, most of which would go toward rehabbing the shelter, which since 1997 has been located in the historic 32,000-square-foot Edna Smith Home on Oak Street in Aurora.

This construction project to the old mansion will not only provide much-needed infrastructure updates, it would add another 12 beds. While that may not sound like much, it is essential, she said, to “keep up with demand.”

Experts blame the pandemic for the initial uptick in calls for service, but the ongoing increase, Maranda believes, can be tied to more media exposure, particularly from domestic violence cases ending in death.

“It is out of the shadows now,” with more people understanding “the reality is that this can happen to anyone,” said Maranda. “We have to have a safe place for them to go. And right now there’s not much of that out there.”

Indeed. One major hurdle, say officials, is the lack of affordable housing. In fact, it’s the first thing Maureen Manning, executive director of Community Crisis Center in Elgin, pointed to when I asked her about the issue.

While each shelter is different, Elgin’s center allows residents to stay for up to two months, she said, which should be “plenty of time” to complete a service plan, get a job, get a paycheck and save for a downpayment.

“That’s not happening anymore,” Manning lamented. “Now there are no apartments available, certainly not affordable ones.”

And so, those in crisis end up going from shelter to shelter – if they can even find a bed – which affects the student mobility rate of school districts, she added.

Certainly it makes a challenging job all the more difficult these days for staff and volunteers at shelters, especially for those on the front lines. As Maranda pointed out, “The hardest job is to tell someone in crisis there is no room.”

That’s why Mutual Ground is counting on “generous donors and good grants” to meet its expansion goal, which would include finding a temporary space for residents while the current shelter is under renovation.

“I continue to be amazed at the amount of support from the Aurora community, including our legislators,” said the CEO, noting a much-needed diaper drive state Rep. Barbara Hernandez, D-Aurora, held a few months ago, and a low-profile Saturday that state Rep. Matt Hanson, D-Aurora, devoted to helping with landscaping around the grounds.

“He showed up at 10 in the morning and worked all day, with no fanfare, no one following him around taking pictures,” said Maranda. “He just loves Mutual Ground and knows its importance in our community.”

Both shelter leaders agree there is no easy answer.

“This is not going to clear up quickly,” predicted Manning, noting that the Community Crisis Center, which can handle 18 cases, has been looking for a permanent PADS facility for years, but has been unsuccessful because people don’t want a shelter in their neighborhood.

Maureen Manning is the executive director of the Community Crisis Center in Elgin. (Community Crisis Center)

“What’s going on now is painful,” she said of the bed shortage, then asserted that hope can be found “in the people who do become successful.

“It will remain a struggle,” said Manning, “but when they can move out and move on, it is a wonderful thing.”

Likewise, Maranda tries to focus on the positive.

“Thinking about how many more survivors and children we can help gets me pumped every day,” she said. “There are a lot of big challenges. But we are going to do this with the help of very good people.”

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