In “Desirae’s” words: A reason to keep going

“Desirae” shares why participating in our Economic Empowerment Program was the silver lining of 2020 for her.

The following speech was delivered by “Desirae,” a survivor and graduate of Sanctuary’s Economic Empowerment Program (EEP), during the January 2021 graduation. Of the 43 graduates, three were selected by class vote to share their thoughts and experiences with the audience.

Read “Desirae’s” speech: 

Good evening, everyone. As we gather this evening to celebrate our graduation, I want to thank the man who started the Economic Empowerment Program from scratch, Angelo J. Rivera. His laying the foundation for this program was amazing, but Angelo would not stop there. He then gathered magnificent people to run it. The EEP team serves the purpose of the program so gracefully – with competence and professionalism, this team has managed to tailor a curriculum that fits the needs of all of us despite the diversity of our members. I don’t know how you all did that, but it is mind-blowing, and it is beautiful that we all received this opportunity. We have benefited so much that we looked forward to coming back again and again to training, day in and day out. Additionally, the training and the Microsoft Office Specialist certifications I now hold are complete game-changers for my job search. That added value to my resume gave me the confidence to aspire for companies I would have only dreamed of working for in the past.

Furthermore, this team showed us that this is not just a “job” for them. They proved on many occasions that there is passion in their approach to this work. This makes a big difference. Many people and organizations want to help, but for one reason or the other, they fail to find the right people to carry their mission forward. Thank you to the EEP team for giving me so much to be thankful for, without taking anything away from me. Thank you for caring.

Someone said that if 2020 was a TV show, it should have been canceled. I ask that we don’t cancel 2020. I understand that the pandemic sucks, the restrictions suck. Many people lost their loved ones to COVID-19, and life, as we are used to, is no longer available. We all are sorrowful for that. But beyond all the despair, I look at the bright side. While the world was asked to exercise social distance, I met and connected with more people than ever before. I was able to go to school and boost my qualifications. All that happened in the comfort of our own homes. I want to thank Sanctuary and all of its partners that made this possible.

To my fellow EEP members, I want to say congratulations. Look at where we are – look at what we have done! Sharing this wonderful journey with you has been an honor and a great privilege for me. Thank you for sharing your stories and thank you for making our community a safe space for everyone. This has meant so much. As we move forward to the next step, let’s not forget that while we don’t know when and what type of recovery the country’s economy will have, one thing that is sure is that we are now commodities for when that recovery comes. We should celebrate our achievements. We had 1,000 reasons to give up, and Sanctuary gave us one reason to keep going. What we acquired in this program is ours – ain’t nobody gonna take it away from us. I love you, and God bless!

All names have been changed to protect the privacy of our clients.

food insecurity; food grants; new york city

A Survivor-Centered Approach to Food Insecurity During COVID-19

With the support of our corporate and institutional partners, from mid-March through October, Sanctuary distributed over $250,000 to more than 425 families for emergency food, supplies, rent, medicine, clothing, and more.

Food insecurity, an important risk indicator for intimate partner violence (IPV), has skyrocketed over the last year due to COVID-19. The ongoing loss of jobs and wages, coupled with safety and mobility issues, has forced thousands of households across New York to cut down on the quantity and quality of their food consumption. The closures of NYC schools and the overburdening of food banks have further exacerbated the demand for food and groceries. As a result, roughly one in four New Yorkers is experiencing hunger.

For many survivors, food insecurity was already an issue before the pandemic. Researchers have found a strong connection between IPV and food insecurity. Evidence shows that:

  1. Financial abuse – or the control of one’s ability to acquire, use and maintain money by an intimate partner – can lead to food insecurity;
  2. Survivors who escape abuse disproportionately rely on public assistance and low-wage jobs for survival and thus face a higher risk of food insecurity;
  3. Factors that give rise to food insecurity, such as poverty and financial stress, also serve as indicators for increased risk of violence.

As one of New York State’s leading providers of comprehensive services for survivors of gender violence, Sanctuary plays a critical role in helping New York’s most marginalized families find and maintain safety and stability. We have always had clients who struggle to afford or access food while escaping abusive relationships. Since mid-March, however, we have seen food insecurity skyrocket to become the single most pressing need for the thousands of families we serve.

Some food resources have become more accessible in NYC than in the first months of the crisis, however, there are still many barriers to food security for our clients including:

  1. Ongoing job loss and lost wages;
  2. Undocumented and partially-documented immigrant clients cut out of public resources and continued fear of ICE raids in public spaces like food banks;
  3. Limited options and timing restrictions for those who do qualify for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits;
  4. Long lines, pre-selected options, and limited hours and locations for food banks making access difficult for clients with limited mobility, childcare concerns, inflexible work hours, and dietary issues.
  5. Additionally, the looming housing crisis will undoubtedly exacerbate food insecurity for many forced to choose between paying rent and buying food.

Recognizing the urgency of the issue, we have kept food pantries at our five shelters and main office fully stocked throughout the pandemic. To meet the increased demand, support non-shelter clients, and protect the safety of clients and staff throughout COVID-19, we have developed a more flexible and survivor-centered approach to food grant distribution. New standardized guidelines for distribution of food grants, developed by staff across program and administrative departments, are based on household size and receipt of SNAP. We also created a shorter, digitized grant request process that improves transparency, enables remote access, allows for easier purchasing via credit card, and gets money for food into the hands of our clients more quickly. Most importantly, we dramatically expanded use of electronic gift cards and grocery delivery services.

We are proud to announce that through this new approach, and with the support of our corporate and institutional partners, from mid-March through October, Sanctuary distributed over $250,000 to more than 425 families for emergency food, supplies, rent, medicine, clothing, and more via electronic gift cards and delivery services like Amazon Prime, Walmart, Fresh Direct, and Target. By expanding the receipt and delivery options available to survivors, our approach recognizes that clients know what is best for their families—whether that be culturally-specific foods or more dietary options. This approach also addresses the inequities that result in food deserts and delivery dead-zones in some communities — inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Even with the successful delivery of our services and our significantly expanded emergency food grants program over the last nine months, we know that demand will only keep growing. Given the spike in domestic violence and ongoing economic crisis, we anticipate a long-term need for support and services even after the city reopens. Despite the ongoing challenges, Sanctuary will continue to utilize existing private funding sources and identify new opportunities to meet our clients’ evolving food needs throughout and beyond the COVID-19 crisis.

Our sincere gratitude goes out to The Gerstner Family Foundation, Robin Hood Relief Fund, NYC COVID-19 Response and Impact Fund, Brooklyn Community Foundation, No Kid Hungry, Tikkun Olam Foundation, Capital One, Monday.com, the Sunshine Foundation, and French-American Aid for Children, for supporting Sanctuary’s client emergency grants programs during these unprecedented times.

Virtual Courtroom Advocates Project: Helping Survivors Get Orders of Protection During COVID-19

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary is honoring a group of dedicated volunteer attorneys, summer associates, and paralegals who provided virtual pro se assistance to survivors of domestic violence seeking orders of protection during COVID-19.

Tushna is Of Counsel at Morrison & Foerster LLP and a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.

One of the unfortunate and dangerous effects of the Coronavirus pandemic has been that the frequency and intensity of domestic violence has escalated during this challenging time. With Family Courts physically closed and operating at reduced capacity as a result of the Covid-19 health crisis, those experiencing domestic violence were not able to receive in-person pro se assistance in preparing and filing family offense petitions against their abuser in order to obtain orders of protection for themselves and their children.

To address this serious gap in services, Sanctuary for Families worked quickly to create a new pro bono project called the Virtual Courtroom Advocates Project (or VCAP), which provided virtual pro se assistance to survivors of domestic violence seeking orders of protection from abuse and violence.  A group of six firms promptly agreed to staff the VCAP program and a group of dedicated volunteer attorneys, summer associates and paralegals from Cahill, Gordon & Reindel LLP, Davis, Polk & Wardwell LLP, Paul Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, Simpson Thacher & Barlett LLP, Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, and Schulte, Roth &  Zabel LLP made a huge commitment to help these brave survivors. Volunteers from each of these firms immediately began staffing the VCAP program five days a week starting in April 2020. By the time VCAP ended on September 1, 2020, VCAP volunteers had drafted nearly 200 family offense petitions on behalf of victims of domestic violence seeking orders of protection.  Nearly 180 of those petitions were filed with the court, with almost all of the petitioners being granted an order of protection and other requested relief.

Each of the volunteers focused their time, energy, and efforts to help their clients prepare and file their petitions and to serve the Temporary Order of Protection on the respondent. VCAP attorneys were tenacious and skilled in their quest to help the clients obtain full stay away Temporary Orders of Protection. In addition, they were able to achieve hard to obtain additional relief to meet the needs of survivors of domestic violence, such as stay away orders for petitioner’s children and pets, child support orders, and orders preventing the electronic dissemination of intimate images and videos of the petitioner.

Each pro bono attorney was compassionate and patient in assisting these courageous survivors to get protection from their abusers and offered empathetic and trauma-informed support, empowering petitioners to find their own path to safety and justice. For example, one pro bono attorney worked for over a week with a petitioner who was afraid to file her family offense petition, patiently supporting the client and empowering the client to make her own decision regarding whether to file the petition. Ultimately, the client decided to move forward with filing the petition and obtained the protection she needed.

As a long-standing member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council and Sanctuary supporter, I am deeply grateful to each of the caring pro bono attorneys, summer associates, and paralegals for their fierce advocacy combined with kindness and deep empathy, and the law firms that supported and facilitated their work. I am also thankful to the Sanctuary for Families staff attorneys who were instrumental in swiftly setting up this innovative program that met the urgent needs of the moment.  And, as always, I am also grateful for, and constantly inspired by, the courage and strength of the clients who stepped forward to protect themselves and their families from violence and abuse in the midst of a global health crisis.

In the words of VCAP volunteer attorney Amy Barton of Paul Weiss,

“Although my clients repeatedly expressed their appreciation to me for my assistance, in the end, they were the ones who deserved my thanks for inspiring me with their strength to find help when needed and allowing me the opportunity to try to make someone’s life a little safer in a world that seemed to be turning upside down for all of us.”

Join us at our Above & Beyond virtual celebration on October 29, 2020, as we honor the VCAP volunteers’ outstanding pro bono work. Click here to RSVP for free.

If you can’t join us, but would like to support Sanctuary for Family’s work, please consider making an Above & Beyond donation here.

COVID-19 & Gender Violence: Sanctuary’s Response

Since COVID-19 hit New York City—the pandemic’s initial epicenter in the U.S.—the survivors Sanctuary serves have reported urgent concerns triggered or exacerbated by the public health and economic crisis, and the resulting quarantine.

Since COVID-19 hit New York City—the pandemic’s initial epicenter in the U.S.—the survivors Sanctuary serves have reported urgent concerns triggered or exacerbated by the public health and economic crisis, and the resulting quarantine. As New York State’s largest provider of trauma-informed, holistic services for these families, Sanctuary’s services are perhaps more important now than ever before.

Learn more about the range of challenges experienced by abuse survivors during this difficult time, and Sanctuary’s rapid, multi-pronged service, outreach, and advocacy response, below.

Urgent Needs

In addition to the trauma of abuse, survivors have experienced an array of challenges, including:

  • Job loss, food, and housing insecurity
  • Court closures preventing or delaying life-saving legal remedies like orders of protection
  • Dangerous visitation situations
  • Stressors and technology challenges around remote schooling, and other childcare issues
  • Increased economic abuse such as stolen stimulus checks
  • Heightened racism and xenophobia
  • Abusive partners restricting reproductive and other healthcare access
  • Immigrant clients’ fears of reporting virus symptoms or seeking emergency police or medical assistance.

Amidst a global spike in domestic violence, Sanctuary has seen a sharp increase in calls to our legal and clinical hotlines, double and triple the rates of previous years. We expect an even greater surge of need as restrictions are lifted and survivors have greater opportunities to seek out help. Throughout the crisis, the message survivors frequently heard and, in too many cases, internalized—from police, the court system, the media, or their abusers—is that their abuse did not constitute a serious “life or death” emergency compared to the medical crisis of the pandemic, leading them to believe that help was not available or accessible.

Sanctuary’s staff and survivor leaders have worked tirelessly to counteract these messages, to help ensure survivors’ safety and access to our essential services.

Our Response

Sanctuary for Families pivoted rapidly to continue providing nearly all our holistic, life-saving services after stay-at-home orders went into effect in mid-March, converting all but our shelter services to remote within a matter of days. Over the past 6-½ months, more than 5,100 adults and children have received services, including the following:

  • Crisis intervention, safety planning, and case management via phone and video calls: Over 3,900 sessions to over 600 clients.
  • Licensed mental health counseling via secure, interactive telehealth services: 35 clinicians have provided over 4,700 counseling sessions to over 500 adults, children and families.
  • Conversion of our intensive, full-day career training to remote learning, purchasing and delivering laptops, software, and Wi-Fi hotspots to 40 trainees last spring (and 60 more this fall), and relaunching trainings within just a few weeks of quarantine order.
  • Continued operation of our five shelters at capacity, with residential aides onsite 24/7 to ensure residents’ safety, and enhanced cleaning/safety protocols to protect their health.
  • Expanding our clinical and legal helplines, staffing the legal line full-time with attorneys so that callers always get a live response (when they may have few free moments to call) and increasing helpline hours—responding to nearly 900 calls.
  • Significantly expanding our direct cash assistance program, distributing more than $250,000 to over 425 families to date for emergency food, supplies, rent, medicine, clothing, and more.

Innovative Outreach

Sanctuary also rapidly developed new initiatives designed to connect with and provide resources to often-isolated abuse survivors and children, who may be cut off from regular avenues of access to assistance:

  • Our clinical and legal helplines launched a website chat feature to enhance accessibility during COVID-19 and beyond—particularly crucial for survivors quarantining in dangerous situations and unable to safely call for help.
  • Sanctuary clinicians and survivor leaders published two guides: a quarantine safety planning guide for domestic violence survivors and a guide for survivors of human trafficking to cope during COVID-19, which have been translated into multiple languages and reached more than 160,000 individuals online.
  • The Virtual Courtroom Advocates Project trained over 80 pro bono attorneys to help survivors seeking orders of protection from remote courts—receiving over 250 referrals and obtaining nearly 180 protection orders to date—and has begun training law students to assist survivors this Fall.
  • Targeted outreach to raise awareness of our new and ongoing services, as well as the rights of survivors during COVID-19, including ads on social media, ethnic news sites, taxis, and public areas at hospitals and other sites, including a powerful We’re Still Here video featuring staff and survivor leaders.
  • We hosted a week-long, trauma-informed virtual summer camp for 25 teens affected by domestic violence, which saw high attendance and active participation.
  • Volunteer and in-kind programming have continued with a virtual tutoring program, remote interview prep and career days for career training participants, and our annual backpack and school supplies drive for almost 600 children returning to school this Fall.
  • Through an initiative overseen by the NYC Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, and privately funded by Rihanna’s Clara Lionel Foundation, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, and Jay-Z, the Robin Hood Foundation, and more, Sanctuary was selected to administer nearly $500,000 in unconditional micro-grants to abuse survivors from domestic violence service providers citywide.

Thank You

The generous support of numerous companies, foundations and private donors have helped us meet the urgent needs of abuse survivors and their children during this unprecedented crisis. Even with the successful delivery of our services over the last seven months, with the pandemic still a major threat and so many New Yorkers facing deep economic uncertainty, the demand will only continue to grow. As our helplines continue to receive nearly 3x the number of calls and our staff field ongoing requests for emergency assistance, we must be prepared to address the anticipated flood of new clients and cases we expect when the city begins to reopen and survivors begin to have greater freedom to seek confidential help as stay-at-home restrictions are lifted.

We hope that you will continue to partner with us to help abuse survivors during the pandemic and beyond.