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Coronavirus causes complications for REACH

Julia Freeman, executive director of REACH of Haywood County, assists a client while wearing a face mask to prevent potential spread of COVID-19. Donated photo Julia Freeman, executive director of REACH of Haywood County, assists a client while wearing a face mask to prevent potential spread of COVID-19. Donated photo

The Coronavirus Pandemic has caused normal daily lives to grind to a halt. All non-essential industry workers must remain at home most of the day. Restaurants, stores, and face-to-face contact are no longer an option. However, REACH of Haywood County is not undergoing that common change.

“Domestic violence and sexual assault do not know what a virus is, and it’s going to happen no matter what,” said Executive Director Julia Freeman. REACH continues to operate 24/7, while adapting to guidelines for social distancing and sanitation. 

Freeman said that domestic violence cases spike in times of prolonged stress and disruption, like financial crises and natural disasters. In addition to physical violence, which is not present in every abusive relationship, common tools of abuse include isolation from friends, family and employment; constant surveillance; strict, detailed rules for behavior; and restrictions on access to such basic necessities as food, clothing and sanitary facilities. Sexual assault victims may be hesitant to go to a hospital to receive a rape kit, with hospitals operating at full capacity and physicians pleading with the public to avoid burdening the health care system.

“Over the last few weeks, we have been hearing stories of injured victims who would not go to a hospital for help because they were afraid of becoming infected with the coronavirus, abusers threatening to expose their partners to the virus by kicking them out of their homes and abusers weaponizing fears of contagion by withholding medical supplies or hand sanitizer from their victims,” said Freeman.

In a report published in March 2020, the United Nations detailed how women and girls were at a higher risk of intimate partner violence, and other forms of domestic violence due to increased tensions in households as more people have to remain at home during the Coronavirus Pandemic. 

REACH has seen this prediction play out as more individuals seek emergency protective orders. Most of those individuals require a protective order against someone in their household and therefore must leave their home and find somewhere else to live — an incredibly complicated process during a shutdown. REACH works hard to find friends or family members that might be available to take these individuals in as a first resort. 

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Though Chief Justice Cheri Beasley of the North Carolina Supreme Court has postponed court proceedings for a second time until June 1, 2020, emergency protective orders are still able to be seen and granted by a judge. REACH Victim Advocate Jessica McElroy said she must now call the courthouse before coming in to file paperwork for a protective order. 

So far, the need for emergency shelter, at the REACH shelter, has remained consistent with that of pre-shutdown numbers. However, Freeman expects this to change the longer the shutdown lasts. 

“We don’t know what the future is going to hold. We are just literally on the first cusp of this stay at home, self-isolation type of thing. We are 10 days into it, so the telltale is going to be here in the next three weeks. The governor has mandated the stay at home order through April 29 so we’re going to see a huge increase in those needing our services.”

How can social distancing work in an emergency shelter? 

“It’s complicated. Because there are shared facilities, like shared kitchens. But we have implemented something similar to other shelters in the region. Asking clients to take their meals separately, sanitizing before and after each use of a common area and trying to restrict themselves to bedroom and bathroom as much as possible,” said Reba West, shelter manager at REACH. 

Four out of the five main areas at the REACH shelter are family suites. This means that these areas are large enough for families to keep themselves quarantined within. Each space has access to the internet, TV and a private bathroom. 

Despite social distancing, modified staffing and changes to the logistics of administering services, REACH is still offering most all services. These include the 24-hour crisis line, court advocacy program, adult therapy sessions (now via phone consultation), and housing referrals and deposits. One REACH client in particular is expected to move into their own home this week. 

The only services on hold are support groups, which involve communal gatherings, and the Safe Dates Program that works within schools to combat teen dating violence. 

As the logistics of administering services change, West said that case management in particular has changed immensely. Usually a very personal and individualized process for staff and clients, social distancing creates less chance for connection where it is needed most. REACH works to connect these clients to services they need within the community. Unfortunately, some of those outside services are closing down. 

“We will give a referral and then two days later it’s a possibility that that service may no longer be available. That just happened this week,” said West. 

Victim Advocate Jessica McElroy said at the REACH office clients and staff are asked to use hand sanitizer often, and keep all surfaces disinfected. Masks are available for staff and clients and meetings between staff and clients now take place in a conference room where individuals can remain six feet apart. 

Although REACH is working hard to keep services available for those who need it, funding is becoming an immediate issue. The shutdown of all non-essential business means that the REACH retail store in Hazelwood, Within Reach, has had to close for the time being. Due to the inability of volunteers to gather together, Within Reach will suspend the acceptance of donations at this time. 

Additionally, the inability to gather people together means REACH has had to put two major fundraising events scheduled for May and June on hold. Money raised through direct fundraising goes to REACH’s unrestricted budget. This budget serves direct client services which pays for housing deposits, housing kits, and other client needs. Funding from the state and federal level will be granted to REACH but is currently delayed. 

“It’s going to be a challenge. We will do what we can to keep the doors open. That’s what we are here for, to serve those in need and those victims of violence. It’s definitely going to be a challenge for us, as will be for other nonprofits in this community. One difference for us is that we don’t have the luxury of closing our doors, because of the nature of our business,” said Freeman. 

Any community members looking to assist REACH during this difficult time can donate directly on the REACH website, reachofhaywood.org. Because REACH still has to meet the basic daily needs of its facilities, it is in need of donations like paper towels, toilet paper, trash bags, and any other cleaning or sanitation products. 

“The most important thing is that we are here to serve. That’s what we are here to do and that’s our mission, and as long as we are capable and able, we will be here for anyone in need. They can call our phone number 24 hours a day,” said Freeman. 

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