With her four children, the woman had recently left an abusive marriage. She was behind on her rent. And, as an employee of the Department of Homeland Security in Philadelphia for nearly two decades, she is one of hundreds of thousands of federal workers who are furloughed during the government shutdown.
She called the Lutheran Settlement House on Tuesday looking for help. The Fishtown nonprofit was able to give her $2,300 toward her back rent and food from its pantry.
But the nonprofit also relies on money from the federal government, specifically the $150,000 the government reimburses it every quarter for its work providing shelter, support for domestic-violence survivors, and more. That means the group is fronting the funds this quarter with no guarantee of when it will get the money.
As the federal government shutdown continues, those who operate programs that rely on federal funds to aid vulnerable populations are starting to worry. That includes shelters women turn to when they face violence at home.
Some area domestic-violence shelters say they could have to cut services if the partial government shutdown, which began on Dec. 22, drags on. In President Donald Trump’s address from the Oval Office on Tuesday, he continued to call on Congress to promise more than $5 billion for a wall or steel barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border. Democratic leaders have said that won’t happen.
Advocates for survivors of domestic abuse worry their clients, who often leave unsafe households with only their children and the clothes on their backs, could decide to return to abusive partners if they can no longer rely on their own paycheck from a federal job, or if federal food assistance programs run out of money.
Lutheran Settlement House is “just starting to feel” the effects of the shutdown as more people call to ask for help paying rent, said Erica Zaveloff, director of development. Employees are preparing to spend a higher share of funds to keep the food pantry stocked. . If reimbursements don’t come, the nonprofit could eventually furlough its own workers.
“We do a lot of work with people in crisis. If we remove our services for a while, it will really impact people’s safety and their ability to be safe in their homes and rebuild their lives successfully," Zaveloff said. "It’s really scary to think about.”
Julie Bancroft, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said most programs are still able to draw down their grant funds, which national advocates are advising them to do, in case the shutdown lingers.
Smaller, rural shelters will be the first to take a hit, and may soon have to start scaling back services and staff, Bancroft said.
“Counselors may not be available for victims, they may not be able to see as many victims, and they may have to turn victims away,” she said.
Not knowing when the shutdown will end is unnerving to agencies of all sizes, including larger ones in the cities.
"Primarily the biggest concern for agencies like Women Against Abuse and our clients is a climate of instability and total inability to plan for the future,” said Elise Scioscia, director of policy and prevention for one of Philadelphia’s largest domestic-violence response agencies.
Both Women Against Abuse and the Crime Victims' Center of Chester County, a nonprofit that serves victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, and other crimes, are looking to diverse funding sources to weather the shutdown. The Crime Victims' Center of Chester County may need to ask foundations and private donors for help, said Christine Zaccarelli, chief executive officer.
The nonprofit does not know exactly which federal payments could be delayed because of the shutdown, and that uncertainty is “difficult to deal with,” Zaccarelli said.
“The scary part for us," she said, "is we just don’t know.”