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Danielle was desperate for safety when she stood outside her home with Austin police for hours, trying to figure out how to get away from the man who had been abusing her.

She had nowhere safe to take her three children. All she had was a spot on a waiting list and instructions to call back every day.

"All of the shelters were so full, even surrounding Austin shelters," Danielle, now 35, recalled.


That was four years ago, long before the pandemic lockdown further depleted resources for victims of abuse, cut off family support systems, increased substance abuse and tension over unemployment, isolated victims and made escaping domestic abuse more difficult, advocates told Austonia.

Now, in addition to an increase in the calls for help, pandemic-era social distancing has cut the available shelter space—usually full with waitlists even before pandemic—by roughly half, advocates say.

According to recent numbers from the Texas Council on Family Violence, about 75 percent of families in Travis County are turned away from domestic-violence shelters due to lack of space.

Programs like Survive2Thrive, which uses partnerships with hotels to get these families to emergency safety, are expanding to meet the need.

"There's always been an issue with displacement and homelessness for victims of domestic violence... but with COVID-19, it kind of opened it up," said Courtney Santana, founder and CEO of Survive2Thrive Foundation, a seven-year-old Austin organization.

As Austin grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, domestic violence incidents are on the rise.

The SAFE Alliance, which runs a shelter and offers services, saw a 25% increase in calls to their hotline in March through June of this year, compared to last year. In the same time frame this year, the Texas Advocacy Project, which provides free legal services, saw an 82% increase in the number of abuse victims "coming out of the woodwork," said CEO Heather Bellino.

"The severity is on the increase," she said. "The level of fear is heightened."

Expanding alternatives

In April, Survive2Thrive established the COVID-19 Domestic Vio­lence Phone Bank for police and referring agencies to allow them to more quickly find shelter for families in need. The following month, the group secured nearly $800,000 in funding from the city and expanded a network of Austin hotels where survivors can stay up to 14 days until they can find more permanent housing.

"It just opened an opportunity for us to have a further conversation about this lack of capacity and this gap in services for survivors that can't get into the shelter or don't qualify for shelter services," Santana said.

Since then, the foundation has been able to serve more than 350 people, helping more than 130 families, Santana said. The group plans to ask for two more years, as the money is being spent quickly on the growing demand.

"We have over 1,500 rooms in the Austin area and partnerships with about 10 local hotels, and two of them take COVID-positive people," Santana said. "So you don't really have to turn anybody away as long as you have case management to support them."

Danielle said Survive2Thrive—where she now takes hotline calls from others like her—got her into a hotel, helped her change her phone number and email and win a protection order against her abuser.

They still offer support, amid the fear that her abuser could one day try and come back, she said.

"That's what makes me feel more comfortable that I don't have to do something that's going to put me in the penitentiary, or my kids don't have to do something that's going to re-traumatize them," she said.

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