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Meghan Rhoad Headshot

US Congress: Keep Your Word to Abused Women

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When Michelle arrived at the shelter in Portland, Oregon, staff members had to help her remove her earring because the side of her face was so swollen from the last beating by her abuser. Months earlier he had responded to the news of her pregnancy by pummeling her abdomen. Unable to find shelter, she had been living in her car while trying to escape the abuse. But that had not kept her safe. Her abuser had punched out her car windows. She used clear packaging tape to try to cover them. Then he assaulted her again. Late into her third trimester, beaten, bruised, and hypoglycemic from lack of food, she finally found shelter and a safe place to welcome her baby.

Finding shelter from violence should not be "like playing the lottery," as one survivor described it to Human Rights Watch. But for too many women it is. The manager of the Portland shelter that took Michelle in told Human Rights Watch that in a single month the staff had received 305 calls for help, but only had been able to admit four new residents. Statewide, the Oregon Department of Human Services reports that 19,996 requests for shelter from domestic and sexual violence could not be met in 2008, a 36 percent increase over the already staggering 14,739 unmet requests in 2007.

National numbers indicate that this is not an isolated problem. A National Network to End Domestic Violence survey of service providers found that, on a single day in 2008, 3,286 requests for emergency shelter and 1,586 requests for transitional housing went unmet.

The good news is that Congress has already made a commitment to do something about this. The bad news is that it hasn't put its money where its mouth is. While having previously recommended $175 million for emergency shelter in the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, Congress budgeted only $127.7 million for these services last year. Likewise, the much-lauded Violence Against Women Act (VAWA -- a flagship piece of legislation for Vice President Biden when he was a senator) has never been fully funded.

This could dramatically change on Friday. The House Appropriations Committee is set to decide how much money to provide for a number of critical domestic violence services, including emergency shelter. Members would do well to remember Michelle, and the millions of American women like her who are forced to flee violent relationships. They should remember the duty of protection the government owes them and the pledge of assistance it has made. And they should be aware of the repercussions if that pledge is not kept.

It is high time for Congress to deliver on the promise of Family Violence Prevention Services and Violence Against Women acts. There is never a good time to short-change domestic violence survivors, but now would be one of the worst. The economic crisis has dangerously widened an already alarming gap between the need for services and the resources to provide them. The result is that an increasing number of requests for help have gone unmet, jeopardizing the lives and safety of a disturbingly large number of women and families.

In considering Friday's appropriations, the committee should see through the thousands of line items to the millions of women in need of shelter. They represent not only an obligation, but an investment. With full funding for both pieces of legislation, domestic violence programs and survivors can work to build healthy futures for women and their families, a legacy that will benefit generations to come. Michelle, now settled in a long-term affordable housing program, is raising her daughter in safety and is going to college and making straight A's. It is a future that should be within reach for all survivors and one well worth funding fully.