For many social service organizations, a year of record numbers is cause for celebration - however, that's not the case with the Domestic Abuse Shelter (DAS).
The 33-year-old institution, which has operations at undisclosed locations in the Lower and Middle Keys, provided a record 12,390 days of shelter to 728 different victims from July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2013. The organization also provided 4,173 hours of counseling.
During the previous fiscal year, the shelter had provided "10,000-plus" shelter days, according to CEO Venita Garvin. However, the reasons for the increase in demand aren't always so easy to understand.
"It's the largest number of days that we've ever provided during my tenure," said Garvin, who has been with the organization for nearly 16 years. "Whether we are in a depressed economy, or one that's flourishing, if a person is in a relationship with an abusive person, then that person is going to be abused. The affordability of housing in our county is challenging as well, and resources are becoming scarcer, as need increases."
Currently, DAS operates "safe homes" in the Middle and Lower Keys, both of which are open 365 days a year.
"We're always open so that victims of intimate partner abuse can access residential shelter services," Garvin said. "If they have children, they can bring them to stay with them. And while they're here, they can work with victims' advocates. One of the first and most important factors in all of this is safety. We work to try to position victims in a way that they begin to feel safe again. We also want the victims to understand the dynamics of domestic abuse and sexual violence, how it's all about the power and control of the dominant partner."
Garvin said that one of the biggest problem the shelter faces is the perception that it is simply a haven for people with substance abuse issues.
Unlike other community organizations such as Samuel's House, the DAS will not necessarily disqualify victims with these types of problems - unless they become a problem for others as well.
"There are some unfortunate misconceptions about the shelter," Garvin said. "We have to operate from an empowerment-based philosophy. We don't penalize women or men who need our services because they have a drug or alcohol problem. In many cases these are people who may be self-medicating due to the severity of the abuse they are suffering. We embrace this challenge. We will facilitate the help they need dealing with drugs and alcohol, at the same time that we're also trying to help with the intimate partner violence issue. We're not going to wait for you to sober up so that you can come get help, because literally, you could be dead by then."
Another misconception is that intimate partner abuse only occurs within the confines of a heterosexual relationship. Of the 728 victims the shelter helped in the last fiscal year, 103 of them were male.
"Of those, many were certainly little children with their mothers," Garvin said. "But domestic abuse occurs in same-sex relationships as well. We've always been a bit more aware of this in the Keys. I recall that when I got here there was already a program in place to deal specifically with same-sex intimate partner violence, called GALA. And our little organization hosted national conferences on the subject twice, in 1998 and '99."
Funding for the shelter comes from a variety of sources, including the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the city of Marathon, Sheriff's Office forfeiture and Victims of Crime Act programs, and some private foundations. The agency is also one of the numerous 501c3 non-profits that receives county funds from the Health and Human Services Advisory Board.
However, like every other health and human service organization in the Keys, the DAS is feeling the pinch of budget reductions, at a time of deepening need.
"Our overall funding for the past three years has been relatively stable, but at the same time demand for our services is growing. And we've lost 17 percent of our funding from the state of Florida," Garvin said. "Or, about $22,000 less than we had last year, through the Emergency Solutions Grant we receive. It could be worse, but we're always hoping for an increase."
That's where fundraising comes in.
Two such community outreach events will take place in the coming months.
First off is the No Name 5K Race, taking place Saturday at the Old Wooden Fish Camp Bridge.
Then it's an evening of food, fashion and cocktails at the "Peace, Love, and Palm Trees" bash.
"That's taking place sometime in March at a private residence," Garvin said. "We'll be posting more information about that event on our website, domesticabuseshelter.org, as it becomes available."
Ongoing direct mail campaigns are another part of the fundraising puzzle.
"We really can't do this alone," said Garvin. "It's an issue that takes a coordinated community response to address the crimes of domestic abuse and sexual assault. We are the local service provider, but this thing is much bigger than what we're able to do. We're trying to work towards becoming a community which has no tolerance for intimate partner violence."
Bob Johnson is a former mayor of Islamorada who was appointed to the county's HHSAB by County Commissioner Sylvia Murphy, four years ago.
"As a board member, I can't be biased for or against any one organization," Johnson said. "They are all extremely worthy of our support. However, having said that, there is no more valuable agency than the Domestic Abuse Shelter. I've been present when women have come in, stripped of their dignity, and their self-confidence, and pride, and self-worth. This is a very real problem, one that is extremely critical to our society. This is more real than politics or journalism. What Venita and her staff do at the shelter is humbling to me."
Another long-time supporter of the shelter is Kim Romano, executive director of Womankind, which provides low cost health services to women - and men.
"Here at Womankind we see patients who exhibit symptoms of abuse and we are grateful we can refer them to DAS," Romano said. "As for the costs of running a non-profit organization, you get what you pay for. If you want to attract and retain great staff members, you take care of them."