BY LISA WӦLFL
The winter holidays are here, and for many, this season is one of reflection and quality time with family. For victims of domestic violence, however, this time of year can be especially dangerous. As Gwen McCraw explained in an interview, calls to shelters typically increase over the winter holidays, as well as around July Fourth and over Labor Day weekend. McCraw is the director of Safe Passages, the only domestic violence shelter in Prince George’s County.
Community Crisis Services, Inc. (CCSI), which runs the 43-bed Safe Passages shelter, along with the county’s homeless shelters, has its offices in Hyattsville. The address of the domestic violence shelter remains protected as a safety measure. CCSI operates an emergency hotline and an online chat. Shelter and hotline services are available 24 hours a day, while the online chat is available from 8 a.m. to midnight daily.
Holidays can be stressful, and if a partner has violent tendencies, the added stress can worsen abuse, McCraw explained. And alcohol, which is often in the mix over holidays, can loosen inhibitions. “We hear this a lot: ‘If they’re not drinking, they’re fine. When they drink, that is when abuse occurs. That’s when they throw things. That’s when they punch the wall. That’s when they will hit me,’” she said.
Although more people reach out to Safe Passages for help over the winter holidays, calls to the Hyattsville Police Department (HPD) do not typically increase during these times, department spokesperson Adrienne Augustus stated in an email. “For the last couple of years, the number of reports to HPD involving cases of domestic violence have remained flat,” she said.
McCraw stressed that domestic abuse isn’t confined to physical violence. If a person is controlling their partner’s every move or finances, that is abuse, too. “We see a lot of coercion, where the partner will keep getting them pregnant, take the birth control from them,” McCraw said. According to her, some survivors don’t even realize that they’re being abused.
For survivors who have managed to leave an abusive relationship, the holidays can be “depressing,” said Jennifer Pollitt Hill, executive director of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, in a phone interview. They might not have resources to buy gifts for their children and may be mourning the lost relationship.
The upcoming holidays could put further strain on emergency shelters that have been at or close to capacity since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since 2020, the Safe Passages shelter has hit capacity multiple times, McCraw said. “[People are] losing their jobs, [experiencing a] lack of food, getting behind on bills. I’m not saying that is a reason for you to become violent with someone, but that added more stress in the household.”
During fiscal year 2022, Safe Passages served 211 women, 238 children and 10 men, and provided 14,332 safe nights, according to McCraw, a 43% increase in nights compared to fiscal 2019.
The Prince George’s County Council approved a total of $500,000 in the fiscal 2023 budget for nonprofits that address domestic violence, including $55,000 to fund CCSI’s Safe Passages shelter.
“Domestic violence remains a major challenge in the County, so we are incredibly grateful for the work of our nonprofits who provide critical service support to survivors of domestic violence and their families,” wrote At-Large County Councilmember and Chair Calvin S. Hawkins II, in a press release.
The increased demand for shelter in the county mirrors the situation throughout the state, according to Pollitt Hill. Instances of domestic violence are occurring more frequently, and the violence has gotten more severe since the start of the pandemic, she said.
A study by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice found that domestic violence incidents increased by 8.1% nationwide after the government imposed stay-at-home orders in 2020.
Some Maryland shelters have been overwhelmed by the demand. According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, in 2020, a statewide lack of resources led to 248 unmet requests for help in Maryland. Of these unmet requests, 24% were for housing or emergency shelter.
McCraw said that she and her staff have never had to turn away someone seeking shelter. When Safe Passages reaches capacity, those still in need of support are housed in hotels or other safe places until a bed at the shelter becomes available.
McCraw urges even those not yet ready to leave an abusive situation to reach out for help. The shelter’s hotline also supports friends and family who are concerned that someone close to them may be experiencing abuse. McCraw offers this advice: “When in doubt, just call.”
- CCSI’s 24-hour crisis intervention hotline: 301.731.1203
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1.800.799.7233
- Hyattsville Police Department (nonemergency): 301.985.5060
- Emergency assistance: 911