The Women’s Center in Linwood is struggling, with donations and government funding dwindling amid the recession and a need to renovate the Atlantic County-owned building that has housed its 18-bed shelter for more than 25 years.

Faulty heating and air conditioning systems and a recurring mold problem that followed Tropical Storm Irene desperately need attention, yet the nonprofit is dealing with a $105,000 budget deficit.

The shelter’s location is not disclosed for safety and privacy reasons.

Meanwhile, the need for domestic-violence intervention grows. The 37-year-old Women’s Center receives thousands of calls for help each year from battered spouses — indicative of an increase in incidents nationwide.

Executive Director Claudia Ratzlaff said the center has received the same reimbursement — $20 a day — for more than 20 years through the state’s Division of Youth and Family Services to shelter battered women and their children.

“You can’t continue to do the same work for the same money,” she said. “The world doesn’t stop.”

The center’s difficulties show the problems faced by shelters across the state and the country, advocates say.

“All of our programs are and have been getting hit,” said Sandy Clark, chief policy and advocacy officer for the Trenton-based New Jersey Coalition for Battered Women. “Many, if not most, shelters have needed to cut positions in the last three to four years, and it all boils down to the recession.”

Those cutbacks have a real impact, particularly as the demand for domestic violence intervention has increased.

“If you lose a legal advocate, for instance, you don’t have as many people to go to court with the women or give them their options,” Clark said.

According to an April survey by the Police Executive Research Forum, 56 percent of more than 700 responding departments reported an increase in domestic violence incidents in 2011, which they attributed to the economy.

Data from The Women’s Center are less conclusive: Hotline calls have increased from 6,470 in 2007, before the recession, to 7,068 in 2011, an increase of 9 percent. But the total days clients have spent in the shelter has decreased from 4,057 to 3,491 during the same time period.

According to the center’s IRS Form 990 tax return for the year ending Sept. 30, 2011, contributions and grants fell 11 percent to $11.3 million from the prior year. The center employed 68 people, 30 volunteers and ran a nearly $13,000 deficit in 2011. Ratzlaff was paid $111,000. Chief Financial Officer Caren Fitzpatrick was paid $87,000.

Ratzlaff said the connection between stress from the economy and domestic violence is clear, if not always quantifiable. The clearest trend, she said, is that violence tends to increase in already violent homes, and already abusive relationships can turn violent.

“It’s not saying economic stress drives people who are not violent to be violent,” she said. “But there are more incidents and the incidents are more severe.”

A bad economy also changes the psychology of abusive relationships.

“Many support systems may also be in danger,” Ratzlaff said. “It depends on the perpetrator’s history, whether or not he has any respect for the legal system and if he judges he has anything to lose in terms of career.”

Donna D’Andrea, the shelter’s legal crisis service coordinator, divides her days between the shelter, municipal courts and county Superior Court, advocating for the rights of the abused and informing defendants of their rights, as well.

An employee of the center since 1987, she said more of the people she’s helped since the start of the recession are struggling with multiple problems. Many of them are unemployed and, in addition to domestic violence, may also need help for mental illness or substance abuse.

“You’re already in a situation where you’ve lost everything,” she said. “It’s a spiral effect.”

Economic concerns don’t go away once clients arrive at the shelter, where they typically can stay for 30 to 60 days. D’Andrea said the goal is to help clients live independently, not support them indefinitely.

To that end, the shelter has programs to connect the women with counseling services, financial assistance and to teach them basic job and life skills as needed.

“The most difficult part is what they’re going to do after they leave this environment because we know there are no finances available, or if there are they’re limited,” she said.

Women with children have an easier time securing housing and financial assistance from the state, D’Andrea said, but the shortage of affordable housing and the competitive job market hurts everyone.

The center owns three transitional housing units for clients who qualify for longer programs.

Some clients, particularly those with more advanced problems, transfer from the shelter to the Atlantic City Rescue Mission and other similar programs. Inevitably, D’Andrea said, some women return to the households they left.

“When you have somebody who can’t get a job and, without that job, isn’t able to do anything, it’s easier to go home where at least (they) know the bills will get paid,” she said.

“And I truly believe people don’t want their lifestyles to change,” she added. “Even people who are in what we consider to be healthy relationships, if they get divorced or separated, their lifestyle will change.”

In addition to pressure due to the growing demand for services and lack of state funding, Ratzlaff said the shelter is in “desperate need” of renovation.

Since Tropical Storm Irene caused a leak in the building Atlantic County provides to the center as an in-kind service, mold has twice appeared. Last month, it appeared overnight in a room adjacent to the shelter’s nursery. The county, which also performs building maintenance and provides meals to the shelter, has mitigated the mold problems both times.

The problem is likely complicated, Ratzlaff said, by a faulty HVAC unit that has trouble controlling the temperature, but it would cost more than $100,000 to replace it. So far, she said, the county hasn’t been able to budget that kind of expense.

And the shelter also needs significant renovations in the bathroom and kitchen areas, which have received little more than a coat of paint in 25 years, Ratzlaff said.

Ratzlaff said the center has considered relocating the shelter, but that would require more money than it has at its disposal.

“The fact is the county in-kinds us the rent,” she said. “That wouldn’t transfer unless it was a county space.”

Similarly, Ratzlaff said the current location is ideal aside from those problems.

“If you didn’t know it was here, (you) wouldn’t think to look,” she said, and it already has cameras and a secure entrance.

County Executive Dennis Levinson said he’s been trying to work out a solution to help the shelter.

“We’re always stretched tight, but the county will do what’s necessary,” he said.

Gerald Del Rosso, the county administrator, said a problem with the HVAC unit’s exhaust fans has been repaired, but there’s still an issue with the air handler. Four air purifiers have also been placed in the shelter during the course of this year, he said.

About $125,000 has been budgeted to fix the air handler later this year, Del Rosso said.

Contact Wallace McKelvey:


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