Survivor's Safe Haven

YWCA Project Provides SAFE Services in Genesee County

BY EVE KUCHARSKI

Once she made it to the hospital, authorities immediately routed her to the YWCA of Greater Flint's SAFE Center. In less than an hour, she saw a patient advocate, a Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner and got an exam done to assess the damage from her assault. Authorities discovered that she had been a victim of human trafficking.

"We realized that she was actually held captive for a long period of time, so she didn't feel safe going to her family's house. We delivered her to a safe house, our shelter in our building, so she didn't have to leave," said Rachel Johnson, the YWCA's director of development and sexual assault services. "That was huge for me. To see how the program was working, that she didn't have to wait in a public hospital waiting room feeling unsafe, and have five, six, seven hospital personnel speaking to her about her story - and then calling us to figure out how to get her to safety."

Since her arrival at the YWCA several months ago, systems to relocate the client out of state have been put in motion - her name unreleased to maintain her safety. Johnson said a story like that is just the tip of the iceberg.

"With domestic violence it's so complex, because you have months and years going on, there's so many ties that those individuals have," Johnson said. "That was just a glimpse of what some of our sexual assault clients experience. I say it was a success story only because the processes worked."

But those processes have been vital for thousands of women annually. The YWCA has been helping victims of sexual violence since the '70s, but it wasn't until nine years ago that the organization officially rebranded from its former image as a fitness center.

Then, the Flint location experienced a huge shift in October of 2016, when it changed locations to the city's recently renovated Phoenix Building. There, the YWCA has been fostering programs to aid victims of sexual assault and domestic violence through advocacy, crisis counseling, support groups and referrals to community resources. The services are not out of place, especially because Genesee County has "three times the national average for reported sexual assault," Johnson said.

However, even with the organization-wide rebranding and a switch to a new site, Johnson said that many people still confuse the YWCA's purpose.

"We still get phone calls almost daily asking about their health and fitness memberships and the customer service person has to continuously tell them that we're not the 'YM,' we're the 'YW,' Johnson said.

Historically however, the YWCA has always had a hand in social justice; look at the more than 100-year-old organization's website, and you'll find that their mission is "dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all."

One of the ways the organization is able to complete its goals on a local level is by providing a unique blend of services, which for many, are unattainable elsewhere. Currently, the Flint YWCA is the only provider of SAFE services in Genesee County. These examiners are specifically taught how to deal with cases of sexual assault.

It is also fitting that the formerly all-women's organization provides these services, because women are also the most affected group in cases of rape and sexual assault -- regardless of race or class. The 2016 Michigan Incident Crime Reporting statistics show that of the more than 3,000 victims of Criminal Sexual Conduct in the 1st Degree, 97 percent were women. Due to local demographics, in Genesee County, black and white victims numbered significantly higher than any other races.

Kanisha Clemons, volunteer coordinator helping out at the YWCA Project's customer service desk.

The LGBT Community

The LGBT community doesn't escape sexual violence either. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that rates of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner are especially high among bisexual men and women. Bisexual women rank at 61 percent, compared with 44 percent of lesbians and 35 percent of heterosexual women. Bisexual men rank highest too, with 37 percent, versus 26 percent of gay men and 29 percent of heterosexual men.

That's why the YWCA does not help only women. Anyone who walks through its doors aged 14 and older can seek services. Many of the cases that the YWCA takes on are also linked to domestic, spousal abuse. This is why the Flint YWCA does not limit the amount of times a woman can come in to get help.

Counseling and Outreach Coordinator Ann Kita said that her department sees over 2,000 women annually. She said that because "every story is so different," it's vital that the center provide that service.

"It's not something for us to say, 'You have only 12 sessions and we have to fix this problem within 12 weeks.' They're here for the duration, period," Kita said. "They say on average, it takes a woman seven to nine times to leave her abusive partner and that's not on her, it's just that there are barriers to leaving, and I think that when she's ready to meet that next barrier, we're here to support that."

In keeping with that, the YWCA tries to ensure that women can stay for as long as they need; until they can feel safe again, or get back on their feet.

"Our average length of stay, because we do have to report on that for our funders, is right around 25 days. We really try not to put a timeline on it. Generally, we say we're a 30-day emergency shelter, but we've had plenty of women who have needed well more than 30 days," Johnson said. "We have some women who just need a couple of days -- maybe until the warrant is out and he gets arrested and they feel safe going home, or they end up choosing to go back with them, or we get them to relocate."

And although the ideal is to maintain a system where every client can use the YWCA as a shelter for as long as they need, the YWCA's resources are not unlimited. Currently, the YWCA's funding remains under former President Barack Obama's Fiscal Year 2017 budget, which allocated millions of dollars to YWCA's under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and Victims of Crime Act (VOCA). The organization has been receiving VOCA funds for more than 15 years to help support its $1.4 million annual operational budget.

However, under President Donald Trump's new budget for Fiscal Year 2018, many millions of dollars will be cut both directly and indirectly to the services that YWCA's rely on.

Beyond this federal funding, Johnson said the Flint YWCA relies on private donations and other grants from local organizations such as the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA), the Mott and Hagerman Foundations, and the Community Foundation of Greater Flint.

While federal dollars give the Flint YWCA the ability to give raises to staff members, implement new programming and fund new positions, fundraising efforts are required throughout the year to help with operational and administrative costs that federal funding does not support.

Johnson notes that all of the Flint YWCA's services are free of charge - meals, personal hygiene products and safe shelter amenities. This includes the needs of the women's children such as diapers and formula.

A recent statement by the YWCA's Interim CEO Cindy Hoffman said that "the full elimination" of the $3 Billion Community Development Block Grant "will pull the rug out" from "safety nets around the country" and YWCA projects, like emergency and permanent housing for survivors of domestic violence.

But budget cuts or not, the YWCA is still providing valuable services for men and women alike. "I'm so fortunate that we're here, because it happens every day," Kita said. "We have walk-ins that come in every day and we have been their last resort and they just don't know what to do and it is about first and foremost the safety for them."

24-Hour Crisis Line

Call the 24-hour crisis line at 810-238-SAFE to speak with trained staff who are able to answer questions, provide information and referrals, assist survivor in accessing other YWCA services and begin the intake process for SafeHouse for those in need of safe shelter.

Connect with the YWCA Project at 801 S. Saginaw St. in Flint by calling 810-238-7621 or visit http://ywca.org/flint.
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