A critical lifeline for N.H.’s crisis centers

  • A kitchen used by guests is seen at the Crisis Center of Central New Hampshire in Concord on April 19, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • A living room used by guests is seen at the Crisis Center of Central New Hampshire in Concord on April 19, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • Teresa Lombardi talks to a client over the phone at the Crisis Center of Central New Hampshire in Concord on April 19, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • The bed inside a guest room is seen at the Crisis Center of Central New Hampshire in Concord on April 19, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • A heart decoration sits on a dining room table used by guests at the Crisis Center of Central New Hampshire in Concord on April 19, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • Jennifer Pierson, executive director of the Crisis Center of Central New Hampshire, is among those working to find shelter for those escaping domestic violence. At right are images of a shelter in Concord. Monitor file

Monitor staff
Published: 4/4/2020 11:44:10 AM

Crisis Center of Central New Hampshire’s Executive Director Jennifer Pierson has been filled with worry ever since officials confirmed the first case of coronavirus in the state in early March.

But it’s not widespread fears about the silent spread of the virus that gave her such anxiety. Like so many victim advocates, she fears not being able to reach the women, men and children experiencing domestic violence who are potentially in deadly situations and unable during this time of isolation to seek help.

“All victims struggle with whether to leave or not, but we’re hearing more and more that folks don’t want to leave,” Pierson said. “They recognize that what’s going on is unhealthy but they don’t want to leave their current situation because they’re acutely aware that there is nowhere to go right now and that resources are depleted.”

The Capital area’s domestic violence shelter was at capacity long before the coronavirus outbreak triggered massive shutdowns and calls for social distancing. Cold-weather homeless shelters have marked their season’s end. Further, realtors have temporarily suspended in-person showings, making more permanent options hard to come by.

Despite all that, Pierson said she wants victims to know that not every door is closed to them and that they haven’t been forgotten. In fact, new funding announced this past week will help crisis centers pay for hotel stays for victims fleeing violent homes and fund other life-saving services.

An emergency order signed Wednesday by Gov. Chris Sununu establishes a domestic and sexual violence emergency relief fund to help crisis centers meet victims’ short-and long-term needs. Up to $600,000 can be disbursed from the fund for groceries, personal hygiene products, transportation, hotel stays and more.

“As I watched that announcement come down, I cried,” Pierson said. “There is so much uncertainty with everything that’s happening right now. There are so many vulnerable populations who need our help and the fact that Gov. Sununu took the time to shine a light on domestic violence and to flash our hotline number is something we’re all incredibly grateful for in this time of crisis.”

Calls to the hotline inquiring about support services offered locally have dropped significantly in recent weeks. Pierson said advocates respond to an average of 30 to 40 calls a day, whereas now they’re handling anywhere from five to 10.

“That’s anyone calling us for a service, so that does include folks in the more northern or southern parts of the state whose needs couldn’t be met in their hometowns so they’re reaching out elsewhere,” she said.

Concord’s domestic violence shelter can house up to 21 people. Because the shelter is full, advocates are looking to area hotels for emergency stays.

Less than 24 hours after Sununu established the new emergency fund, Pierson was on the phone with a local hotel to book a month-long stay for a domestic violence victim who had nowhere else to go.

“The reservation I just made was for $3,700 and that’s just for one person,” she said. “We are getting calls daily about housing.”

As of Friday, the crisis center was funding month-long stays for two people, but Pierson said she has no doubt the need will grow. And it will continue to be there long after restaurants and retailers reopen and people return to work and school, she said.

“While utilities can’t be shut off or evictions can’t happen now, there will be a time when society starts to return to normal and there will be a lot of people in bad places,” she said.

Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, advocates throughout the state have been working toward new and innovative approaches for reaching victims at a time when many in-person services and programs are not available. Recognizing that it is difficult for victims to call into the hotline and have a conversation when they’re isolated with their abusers, crisis centers are starting to launch web-based chat and texting options.

Concord’s crisis center unveiled the service about one week ago on its website and advocates have experienced positive results so far, Pierson said.

Anyone who clicks on the link to chat live receives an automated disclaimer educating them about the potential for spyware or stalkerware on their devises. Perpetrators of domestic violence are increasingly using spyware to stalk, track, monitor and harass their victims.

“We don’t want to be putting anyone at increased danger,” Pierson said.

In a separate emergency order Wednesday, Sununu also authorized $2 million to the state’s Division for Children, Youth and Families to provide for violence prevention specialists in each field office throughout the state and the hiring of new licensed drug and alcohol counselors. Referrals to the DCYF hotline have dropped drastically since schools closed and switched to remote learning.

The crisis center’s family violence prevention specialist, who works closely with DCYF, has seen the ripple effects firsthand, Pierson said.

Moving forward, the center hopes to work with local schools to find ways to continue its prevention education work and educate young people about the new online chat and texting hotline.

“We need to reach those kids who may be in abusive homes and now think they have nowhere to turn or no one to talk to,” she said.

To mark Sexual Assault Awareness Month, crisis centers statewide had scheduled community events and fundraisers before the coronavirus hit. In recent weeks, advocates have been forced to cancel nearly all of them or explore online alternatives.

But the community is still showing up in big and small ways.

One day each week, Pierson drives to the crisis center and works from her office to process invoices and complete payroll. She said each time she returns she finds care packages and goodie bags on the porch.

And on a recent Wednesday, a man dropped off a truckload of diapers, baby wipes, toilet paper, paper towels, toothbrushes and “everything you could imagine,” Pierson said.

“I’ve been so grateful for these anonymous folks who are thinking of us, especially when it has been so difficult for everyone to supply their own homes,” she said. “I can’t thank them enough for their generosity.”

If you or someone you know has experienced domestic violence, advocates are available 24/7 to provide free and confidential support through the statewide hotline at 1-866-644-3574. The statewide sexual assault hotline is 1-800-277-5570. You don’t have to be in crisis to reach out.

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