AWARE, Inc. conducted its annual meeting and open house on February 28. The gathering provided an opportunity to learn about the achievements from the previous year and to meet staff and board members. The open house included a tour of the shelter.
Abused Women’s Assistance and Resources (AWARE) has been helping women deal with domestic violence and sexual abuse for 40 years. In 1978, founder Wanda Goetz-Beiswenger was able to locate a building to provide shelter for women victimized by violence through a grant from the Jackson YWCA Trust Fund, funds from the Michigan Department of Social Services and $10,000 from Community Development Block Grant. The building was remodeled to accommodate the needs of women who required temporary shelter.
The organization provides essential services. AWARE offers 24-hour crisis and referral services, temporary shelter, housing advocacy, counseling support, public awareness and community education, legal advocacy, supervised visitation and safe exchange services to survivors of domestic and sexual violence and their children.
We met with Angelita Velasco Gunn, Executive Director of AWARE, to ask her how things have changed since 1978, and what has caused those changes. In particular, has the temporary shelter situation gotten better since the mid-80s when many women were placed on waiting lists? “Between 1975 and 1978, more than 170 battered women’s shelters opened across the country,” Gunn responded. In 1978, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights named over 300 shelters, hotlines, and groups advocating for abused women. Today, AWARE, Inc. is one of 1,500 shelter-based programs across the country according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
With the passage of the first federal Violence Against Women Act in 1994, funding priorities have focused on prevention, education, and programs to improve law enforcement, prosecutions, and court and victim services.
Locally, AWARE, Inc. nearly doubled its occupancy in 1997 with its move from the first shelter on Wildwood to the current location on Michigan Avenue.”
Is the increased occupancy at AWARE enough, especially if violence against women has been on the increase? Gunn replies “During the fiscal year 2017, AWARE, Inc. housed 147 adults and 81 children, and providing 6,917 nights of shelter. We turned away an additional 46 individuals eligible for services due to lack of space. When people are turned away for lack of space, we help them find a temporary solution, sometimes in neighboring shelters or with friends or family until space becomes available. The last fiscal year was unusual in that people stayed longer than average due to a lack of clean and affordable housing in the city of Jackson. Most of the families we work with are eligible for public assistance which caps the amount of rent that can be paid due to rent subsidies.”
However, Gunn could not state with certainty if violence against women has been actually increasing. “If we think about what it was like in the late 60’s and early 70’s before there was an awareness that came with the domestic violence movement, the problem was kept hidden. Many victims suffered in silence for years because there were no places for help. I would suggest that with increased awareness of the issue and the changes in the laws, the crime of domestic violence has come out the shadows. The current #MeToo movement is another example of victims coming forward to talk about sexual assault and sexual harassment because they are finally being believed. When one person has the courage to come forward, it can open up the floodgates. It may not always indicate an increase in sexual abuse, but that victims suffered in silence or were not believed when they did tell.”
Nevertheless, if there has been an increase in domestic violence over the years, what is behind it? Gunn believes it’s a cultural problem.“Philosophically speaking, when we become less empathic as a culture and community, we do not see the value in others as humans deserving respect and dignity. We do not understand that in our livelihoods and to thrive as communities, we need to recognize our interdependence.”
Another problem is that of abused men. “AWARE does serve both men and women who are victims of domestic violence, and we have served men in the past. Although men are less likely to call for crisis shelter services, they may seek support through counseling services or through the courts, and could get support from our legal advocacy staff.”
One setback transpired in 2015 when AWARE, Inc. ceased providing forensic exams due to the loss of funding for the SANE/SACS (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner/Sexual Assault Comprehensive Services) program. However, AWARE officials have since worked to fully integrate sexual assault comprehensive services into the current agency infrastructure. They also work with area hospitals to meet the needs for triage and forensic exams for victims through their emergency departments.
AWARE is a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit organization and a United Way partner. AWARE’s 24-Hour Crisis Line is 517-783-2861.