Since opening its doors in 1985, Kenai’s LeeShore Center has served as a sanctuary for the community’s women and children in need. This year, its staff will celebrate the center’s 30-year anniversary by continuing its mission — providing shelter, services and support for victims of domestic abuse.
In the last fiscal year, 136 women and children used LeeShore’s emergency shelter, said Executive Director Cheri Smith. At present, all 32 beds in the shelter are filled.
Smith said the center also helps about 400 people per year who don’t stay at the shelter.
A Different Environment
Out of every 100 women in Alaska, 59 percent have experienced “intimate partner violence, sexual violence, or both,” according to a 2010 Alaska Victimization Survey. To combat this, the LeeShore Center provides women and children with an emergency shelter, temporary housing, support groups, child care, a 24-hour crisis hotline and other programs.
Recipients of LeeShore’s services, however, say they’ve found something special in the center that goes beyond its programs and facilities.
Aubrey Austin, a recovering addict originally from Arizona, is no stranger to women’s shelters. She has spent time in shelters in southern states and said none of them have come close to what she found at LeeShore.
“This is more like a home,” Austin said. “The staff here are more like friends. It’s not like that down south. It can be pretty scary in some of those places.”
Austin said LeeShore was her way out of a toxic situation in the Kenai. Staff members take Austin to doctor appointments and meetings, and are working to help her find a rehabilitation facility in South Carolina so she can move closer to her children.
“My husband and I were homeless, so we were using. I got arrested, and I knew when I got out of jail I couldn’t go back, or I’d get high again,” Austin said. “My doctor basically told me after the seizures and everything I had in jail that I didn’t have another high in me. If I went back, I would surely die.”
Karen Stroh runs the emergency shelter, where women and children have access to a large, stocked kitchen, a recently remodeled playground, donated clothes and the help of staff advocates. She said that while living conditions can get cramped, she tries to provide the most comfort she can.
Austin said having many women living under one roof is helpful because they can rally around each other, adding to the support from advocates.
“I’ve been through everything here, between my best friend being murdered, my kids being taken away from me — I had two hours notice before my kids left — my mother moving countries and my husband being diagnosed with a terminal illness, all in the space of two months,” Austin said. “Any other time, I would have relapsed and used, but with all the support here, that wasn’t even an option for me.”
Tabitha Campbell, of Homer, said she and her five children relocated to LeeShore’s emergency shelter after finding a women’s shelter in Homer did not have facilities to accommodate one of her sons, who uses a wheelchair.
“This place is handicap accessible,” Campbell said. “The other place, all they had was stairs. They’re just not equipped for it, and their people aren’t as nice.”
Campbell said the staff have done numerous things to prepare her for life after the shelter. The advocates are always there to lend a hand with her kids or discuss different parenting techniques, she said.
“The environment’s laid back so there’s not pressure, or judging people,” Campbell said. “I’m just looking at housing now. They helped me with all of my medical problems, my state aid problems, everything. It’s all in a row now.”
Austin agreed that between the staff members and the other women at the shelter, there is no shortage of places to turn for help or advice.
“It’s far more personal here,” she said. “I’ve gotten literally more recovery on the smoking patio than I’ve ever gotten in a meeting.”
Trends and Stereotypes
Some things have changed since LeeShore opened its doors 30 years ago, and not just within the center itself. When Smith signed on 21 years ago, she said the shelter was recording 3,000-4,000 beds in use per night each year. By Fiscal Year 2014, that number had jumped to nearly 8,000, she said.
Smith said higher numbers of women and children using their services is a good sign, not a bad one. It does not necessarily mean more abuse is happening within the community, she said, but it does mean more women feel comfortable enough to seek help.
“People have, I think, the idea sometimes that if you’re doing a lot of prevention that your numbers should go down, and in the domestic violence world, that’s not the case. Your numbers should go up,” Smith said. “The more that we talk as a community about domestic violence, sexual assault and prevention, the more people become aware and the more they reach out.”
Trends in domestic violence aren’t the only things Smith said people need to be wary of. Stereotypes about what domestic violence is and who it affects can be damaging if taken at face value. It is important to remember that every situation, and every woman, is different, Smith said.
Stroh said she has worked with women in varying situations to free them from abuse. Services can range from helping someone find financial stability to the intricacies of planning an escape to a different state, children in tow, which she said can take months of planning.
“Leaving is dangerous. So, we sit and we talk with them,” Stroh said. “Where can you hide things, where can you put things in case you do need to leave right away?”
LeeShore’s staff cited one misconception they hear over and over again — that it should be easy for a woman to leave an abusive relationship. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, it takes a woman an average of seven tries to leave an abusive relationship for good. For Austin, this isn’t merely a statistic.
“That’s exactly how many times it took me,” she said.
Austin explained that she had been through a custody battle and came out on the losing side, so going back to toxic a relationship seemed like the best option at the time.
“Sometimes it’s easier to stay with the devil you know than the devil you don’t,” Austin said. “I thought going back would be easier and would be a way around the system to win, and nothing got easier. Everything got worse.”
“The victim blames herself, the batterer will blame the victim, and the community blames the victim,” Smith said. “So there’s no accountability for the offender who’s doing that.”
Smith said that for many women, it is not as simple as walking out the door. Victims are often cut off from money, family, friends, transportation and other resources that are key to leaving an abuser.
Another reason it takes multiple tries to leave a domestic violence situation is that the act of leaving actually places the victim in more danger, Smith said.
“What people don’t understand is that when a woman leaves that relationship, her lethality is going to increase 75 percent,” Smith said. “It’s more dangerous when she leaves… When she steps out that door, the batterer doesn’t just doesn’t say, ‘Oh, she’s gone. I’ll go find somebody else.’”
One particularly tricky stereotype is that women are the only victims of domestic abuse. While Smith said there are certainly men who are victimized, she said it is rare to find a man who fits the full criteria of a victim of domestic abuse.
According to the LeeShore Center, the definition of domestic abuse includes not only physical battery, but emotional and mental manipulation, exercise of control and infliction of fear upon the victim. It is rare to find a man who is truly experiencing all these factors, Smith said. Abuse against men stemming from same-sex and other relationships, however, should not be taken lightly, she said.
Men are not allowed to stay at LeeShore’s emergency shelter, but Smith said there are programs and services available for them.
Smith and other members of LeeShore’s staff said they will continue to focus on keeping the center and its programs funded in years to come.
The center’s annual Kenai Peninsula Run for Women took place on Aug. 8 for the 28th time. Volunteer Coordinator Ashley Blatchford said she finds plenty of support in the local community, not only when it comes to the run. Volunteers call Blatchford asking where they can lend a hand, and the most rewarding part of her job is when she can match a volunteer with a project, she said.
Another annual fundraiser, the center’s radio-thon with KSRM, will take place Sept. 14, Smith said.
As rewarding as her work is, Smith said she’d rather be out of a job than celebrate another 30 years with the LeeShore Center. Eventually, she would prefer there be no need for women’s shelters or services.
“Hopefully we’ll be out of business,” she said. “That’s our ultimate goal.”
Until that time, Smith said staff members will continue working with women and educating the community. Austin said she would support any means of keeping the center’s doors open, as it is one of only a few options for some women.
“Sometimes they just save women from being hit. Sometimes they help women rebuild their lives, and every once in a while they literally do save a life,” Austin said. “I’m literally one of those people that they saved from dying because if I had gone back to that I would have gotten high again, and I wouldn’t have the 79 days that I have now, clean. I’ve never had that much time in a decade since I’ve been using.”
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org