Nowhere to Turn

A domestic-violence organization braces for more cuts in state funding

Mackenzie McAlister says her boyfriend of three months took hold of her throat one night—in front of her 6-month-old son—and choked her so hard that she passed out.

When she woke up, McAlister, 29, left with her son, even though she didn't have anyone to turn to for help. She says her boyfriend had forced her to stop communicating with friends and family.

She called a helpline and was directed to the Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse, Tucson's domestic-violence shelter and counseling agency.

"I figured I was about to be homeless, because I had no place to go," McAlister says.

At Emerge!, McAlister and her son were placed in one of the organization's two shelters. With a place to live and counseling, she began to repair relationships with her family, including her 8- and 9-year-old daughters who live with McAlister's mother.

Sarah Jones, the executive director of Emerge!, says she wonders how long the agency can continue providing services for people like McAlister.

The state budget crisis is in Jones' thoughts every day. She thinks state legislators need to get to know people like McAlister in order to better understand the public-safety risks involved with the ongoing state cuts.

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have told Jones to expect more cuts thanks to the latest round of budget bills. Her agency has already seen more than $500,000 cut from the $1.8 million it receives in state funding. Jones says she'd like to plan ahead, but she doesn't know how much has been cut, and won't know until she receives—or doesn't receive—the next payment.

For the past year, Jones says, there has been little to no communication between her agency and the state, which makes it difficult to plan. It wasn't always like that in the past, Jones says, when Republican state Sen. Tim Bee and Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano were in office.

Jones says that some cuts are made retroactively, and right now, the state is behind in payments. Jones says she just received the November 2009 payment, and she doesn't know if Emerge! will receive a December payment.

"We know (the Legislature) has swept away the domestic-violence fund, but we haven't heard anything official yet. The challenge is getting the information. The delay in getting us information is unreal," Jones says. "The state has been brutal in terms of the kinds of funding that gets cut. When you look at state funding, there are all sorts of different kinds of funding pots. Part of ours comes from (the Department of Economic Security). There are lots of mandated services, then there are ones that are federally matched, like homeless services. If the state cuts their money, they are going to lose the federal match as well, so the state is going to be less likely to cut those budgets."

The trouble with domestic violence is that its funding is not mandated. "That's truly terrifying, because it is truly discretionary money," Jones says.

Most communities view domestic-violence agencies as part of the public safety net, even though the funding is discretionary. For example, when police respond to a domestic-violence situation, and realize they need to remove the victim and perhaps children, where do they turn to place those people in a safe environment?

They come to her organization, Jones says.

Jones says she finds that some legislators don't always understand what it costs to provide safe housing for domestic violence. The agency spends about $100,000 a year on food; then there are toiletry supplies and clothing, and overhead costs for each shelter, like electricity.

"Remember, most people escape violence with just the clothes on their back. When people come to us, we really have to provide everything," Jones says.

"We could lose shelter beds if we see more cuts, but we can't lose all of our shelter, even though 60 percent of our funding comes from the state. We will need more donation dollars to go toward the shelter. We need to maintain shelter, obviously."

But timing is important right now. Without any clear direction from the state, she doesn't know what will happen.

"But I think to say that the community will step forward, as some legislators have (said), is unrealistic. We have great donors, but it is still unrealistic," Jones says.

McAlister says she wishes the state would make domestic violence a priority. After all, she doesn't know what she would have done the night she left without Emerge!

"We did domestic-violence counseling, and I'm still in an outreach program. There is also job training and someone to help you look for a job. I have my own place now. I just had a birthday party here for my daughter. It's been three months, and my life is better now that I'm not in an abusive relationship," McAlister says.

"I really think that people just don't get (domestic violence)," she says. "I think a lot of people see it, but turn a blind eye to it. Mostly, we're afraid to talk about it."

District 26 Rep. Vic Williams says the communication problem is not an issue with the Legislature; the problem is between the state agencies and the providers. However, he also admits there probably wouldn't be an issue if the budget was balanced.

Jones can expect more retroactive cuts, he says, adding that more state revenue is needed—and additional cuts are needed, too.

"You'll never get a majority vote in this Legislature," Williams quips, saying voters will wind up having to make some tough decisions themselves.

"When this first started, we should have acted on shutting down the state by July 4 and forced the government to pass a balanced budget," he says.

Williams says he's working on a bill that would force legislators to pass a balanced budget—and if they don't, state lawmakers and executives don't get paid.

"I won't be popular," he says, "but I think it would work."

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