The pandemic is making it harder for survivors of domestic violence

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In the best of times, survivors of domestic violence face a lot of challenges finding safe shelter. The coronavirus pandemic has made things much worse. Stay at home orders keep survivors closed up with their abusers. Shelters have to reduce capacity or close because of social distancing rules. However, crisis hotlines and shelter operators are coming up with creative ways to connect with domestic violence survivors and get them to safe places.

Can’t call; can’t get out: Survivor challenges in the pandemic

When the coronavirus began spreading quickly last spring, state and local governments around the country issued stay at home orders. Closing businesses and remote schooling children have been key steps in slowing the spread of COVID-19. Although the lockdowns have been necessary for public health, they have made bad situations worse for many domestic violence survivors.

Healthcare systems have been overloaded in coronavirus hotspots, making it harder for domestic violence survivors to get medical help. Many women in these areas may fear going to the emergency room with injuries because they worry about exposure to the coronavirus. Staying with parents is a common safe harbor for survivors escaping an abusive partner. During the pandemic, though, many survivors do not want to risk exposing their parents to COVID-19.

It is often impossible to call for support and assistance when stuck in the house with an abuser, day in and day out. There is no way to talk with a counselor in person because of office closures, and video chats are not possible because of lack of privacy at home. 

Some states made exceptions for domestic violence survivors so that they could leave abusive situations without violating lockdown orders, but most did not. Only 17 states listed domestic violence survivors as exempt from stay at home orders issued between last March and May. Only five states listed domestic violence shelters as “essential services” during the pandemic: Colorado, Minnesota, North Carolina, Illinois, and Indiana.

Many domestic violence survivors get support and help through work networks. Experts in domestic violence emphasize the need to develop a safety plan. Most often, survivors are encouraged to plan for leaving when the abuser is not at home. This is not really possible when there is a stay at home order.

Abusive behavior is often triggered or becomes more intense when stress is added to the mix. Being furloughed or having work hours slashed will cause stress. So will facing rent and utility bills without steady income. Crisis hotline operators have been concerned that the pandemic and economic recession will spur more calls and more violent incidents.

Overall, calls to domestic violence hotlines have risen. However, some areas have seen spikes and other areas have seen sharp drops in calls. The drops are likely because it is more difficult to call for help or support when under a stay at home order. Several providers in these areas told NBC News that while they had fewer calls, those coming in were often describing more violent incidents. 

Abusers often try to isolate their partners. They may isolate their partners socially, emotionally, and financially. They will seize checkbooks, credit cards or cell phones to control their partners. In the middle of a pandemic, abusers may use misinformation to scare and control their partners. They may also try to limit access to medical care, ranging from canceling insurance to preventing appointments.

Abusers also often threaten to throw survivors out of the house, facing homelessness with no financial resources. Before the pandemic, a high percentage of homeless women with children were fleeing domestic violence. With the coronavirus rampant, domestic violence survivors risk getting sick if they leave their abusers without a plan or resources.

Shelters facing challenges, shift gears to help survivors

Many domestic violence shelters have been using hotels for a long time to help survivors escape abusers. Photo by Tino Rossini on:

Domestic violence shelters have faced many of the same challenges as shelters serving other people experiencing homelessness. These places are meant for temporary stays. They typically have close sleeping quarters, shared bathrooms and common cooking and living areas.

Like other homeless shelters during the pandemic, domestic violence shelters have had to reduce their capacity to support safe social distancing. They have had to adopt deep cleaning routines, and make sure hand sanitizer and masks are available.

Many local governments and shelter operators have turned to hotels to shelter homeless people during the pandemic. Hotel rooms reduce crowding in shelters, and they provide safe quarantine space for at-risk people on the street. Shelter providers and service organizations can deliver meals and medications, and help arrange other services that clients may need to get through the pandemic.

Many domestic violence shelters have been using hotels for a long time to help survivors escape abusers. They have developed good relationships with hotel operators in their areas over time. But providing hotel rooms for all clients is very costly, and most domestic violence shelters operate on slim budgets. They also rely heavily on volunteers. Spreading their outreach between many sites can stretch staff resources thin.

Crisis hotlines and domestic violence shelters have had to adjust their outreach too during the pandemic. With survivors more isolated than ever before, some hotlines are expanding the ways that survivors can reach out. For example, survivors can now text or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline. However, most local hotlines still only take phone calls.

Some shelters are providing counseling with Zoom and other video chat options. Local shelters have also found creative ways to reach survivors, like including flyers in meal deliveries boxes.

Domestic violence shelters and hotlines have seen their budgets take a heavy hit during the coronavirus pandemic. On the one hand, the shelters have much higher expenses. They have to buy masks, sanitizer, and other things needed to reduce the spread of COVID-19. And they have to deconcentrate their shelters, spending more on hotels to shelter clients.

At the same time, the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic has cut into their funding. They receive fewer donations at a time when lots of people are out of work. Because of social distancing restrictions, shelters cannot do live fundraising events like dinners, charity runs, golf tournaments, or auctions. Most shelters also rely on volunteers, many of whom may not be able to work because they are older or have other health conditions.

What can you do?

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If you are in a domestic violence situation and need support, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. They are available 24/7, 7 days a week. If you are in an emergency situation, please call 911.

If you are unable to speak safely, you can text “LOVEIS” to 1-866-331-9474. You can also log onto the National Domestic Violence Hotline website at The organization’s website has lots of resources for domestic violence survivors and those who want to get involved. 

If you are interested in helping domestic violence survivors, now is the time to show your support for local shelters, crisis hotlines and service organizations. These nonprofit groups have trouble meeting needs in the best of times. Now they are being asked to do twice as much with little money trickling in. Donations and volunteers will be greatly appreciated as the pandemic moves into winter.

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