When fear forced Melissa Strawn to move out of her boyfriend's house before something violent happened to her or her two young boys, she felt sure she'd find refuge at a domestic violence shelter in San Jose.
She was wrong.
The only bed available the day Strawn made her move to safety was at a shelter in Concord, 56 miles north. So instead, Strawn used some money she'd saved and went to a hotel for a few days.
"I couldn't believe there were no openings," said Strawn, a sociology student at San Jose State. "I thought, 'There's just no way this could be possible.' "
But cutbacks in funding for domestic violence programs and an increase in the number of women seeking help has forced shelters around the state to reluctantly turn away people who are desperate for help. Whenever possible, women are referred to other shelters, including those for the homeless, or placed in a hotel for two to three days.
"This is the reality of shredding the safety net," said Kathleen Krenek, executive director of Next Door, a domestic violence shelter in San Jose. "Government has been cutting social and human services for three to five years now, and I don't think people know the effects. At this level, most of these people are invisible to them."
Krenek said the increase in requests for help intensified in June at Next Door. Around the state, many shelters have tried to cope with the increase for the past couple of years, said Camille Hayes,
"This is particularly difficult in rural counties," she said. "There are times when people simply can't find a bed."
During a 24-hour survey period in September 2010, there were 614 unmet requests for services at 97 shelters in the state that participated in the National Census of Domestic Violence Services. Half of those women were seeking emergency shelter and transitional housing so they could leave dangerous situations, according to survey results.
"As communities continue to experience job loss and decreased community resources, 84 percent of programs reported a rise in demand for services for the past year while 88 percent of programs reported a decrease in funding," a summary of the survey states.
The situation is not as dire as the crisis in July 2009, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed $20.4 million in funding for the Department of Public Health's Domestic Violence Program, the financial lifeline for 94 domestic violence shelters and centers. Six shelters had to close immediately, putting the lives of dozens of domestic violence victims and their children at risk.
The $20.4 million in funding for shelters statewide wasn't restored until October 2010 after state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, and others fought to turn around efforts by the GOP to block the funding bill.
"After shelters started closing immediately, we did a big push back and got the funding back into the budget," said Hayes. "We're in the budget at the moment, but we're watching it."
Funding cutbacks and full shelters are very real, but Krenek, Hayes and other shelter officials said women at risk should not turn away from them.
"If they go, they will receive help," Hayes said. "Call the hot line and they'll get something, they'll get a voucher for a hotel or money for transportation to another city. They can help them with a bus ticket."
Not surprisingly, Krenek said, "we're going through our hotel money very quickly."
Melissa Lukin, executive director of Community Overcoming Relationship Abuse in San Mateo County, said their 22-bed shelter has remained full for the past two years, and they received more than 700 requests to stay there. But they have managed to help many of the callers by giving them hotel vouchers for up to three nights. The demand comes in the wake of losing 20 percent of their staff because of budget cuts and a 70 percent increase in calls for assistance from police about domestic violence calls.
"The casualty of the economy for us has forced us to focus on very short-term solutions," she said. "What has suffered is the prevention program."
The Safe Alternatives to Violent Environments shelter in Fremont has been consistently full in recent months, and the staff members spend a lot of time on the phone trying to find a place in another shelter for the women they can't take.
"I just called all of the shelters in the Bay Area," said one counselor, who asked that her name not be used because she also works in the police department. "I only found one bed available, in San Rafael. The woman is 62, and that's really too far."
Shelter officials said they hope new donations can help offset the drop in government funding. But they are fearful of what the future will bring for the many women and children who need help getting out of dangerous living situations where the mother -- and often the children as well -- are battered.
"What we're seeing is more severe abuse," said Krenek of Next Door. "That's part of the dilemma. How do we make sure we have room for somebody who is facing 'if they don't get out now, they might not get out?'
"If you look in Santa Clara County, there have been nine murders and two suicides that were domestic violence," she said. "None of the women who were killed had even approached a domestic violence program. If there's any hope, get help."
And if they call, the scramble will begin all over again.
Strawn was finally able to solve her problem by contacting social services in another county. She received temporary emergency assistance and money to get into a new place for her and her sons.
"My heart goes out to anybody else in a similar situation," Strawn said. "People don't realize it could happen to any of us."
Contact Linda Goldston at 408-920-5862.