May 2, 2020
Crystal Serra*, a 27-year-old New York native and single mother of three children age five and under, would have looked like your typical mom when she dropped her oldest off at school on January 20, 2020. What no one knew, or could have possibly known, is that the night before she had been physically abused by the father of her children and partner of almost 10 years. “You know, at the beginning everything was beautiful,” Serra says. “We got along great, and then things started happening.” Those things included physical, mental, and emotional abuse, which all became more frequent and more intense as time went on. But the previous night’s physical altercation was worse than most, Serra says, and on an otherwise typical morning, a switch inside her flipped.
“I decided right then and there that I was going to take control of my life,” she explains. “I was scared. I was so nervous. I was shaking. I was sweating. But I called the police and I waited for them. That’s when, in my mind, in that moment, I took a turn. He got arrested and I stayed with family.”
For four days, Serra and her three children stayed in a spare bedroom at a relative’s house. Then, on a Friday morning, she got word there was an opening at a shelter. “I got in an Uber with my kids, we literally had one suitcase and a duffel bag, and we abandoned everything—we had to start over.”
Nearly three in 10 women and one in 10 men have been severely physically abused by an intimate partner, according to The National Domestic Violence Hotline. Nearly half of all murdered women are killed by a spouse or romantic partner, and a study published in 2019 found that homicides committed by intimate partners with gun violence are on the rise. Now that the United States is in the throes of a global pandemic that at one point had left one in four Americans sheltering in place, the number of domestic abuse reports are increasing. The necessary steps society has taken to help mitigate the spread of the virus—closing schools, shuttering nonessential businesses, and mandating sheltering in place—has created a “perfect storm” for abusers, who now have even more power and control over their victims.
“People are really confined in very tight quarters, and the kinds of releases or respite that a victim might have had in the past—like going to work or going out to do shopping or anything of that sort—has really been severely limited,” Carol Corden, executive director of New Destiny Housing, the largest provider of permanent places to live for domestic-violence survivors in NYC and one of the co-conveners of the Family Homelessness Coalition, says. “Now, there’s even more opportunity for control and abuse.”
Serra was able to leave her abuser before shelter-in-place initiatives were enacted around the country, but she has noticed an increase in the number of people and families who are seeking shelter and safety during this public-health crisis.
“I have seen a few new faces, but I haven’t been able to get to know them because of social distancing,” she says. “So I don’t know their story, but I have seen a few new families and a few more single people come in. And I can understand that, now, during this crisis with the stay-at-home order, where the abuse can grow, because now you’re forced to be there with your abuser and you have nowhere to go. You have to stay inside. And you can’t even go to work, where maybe work could have been safe for somebody. I know work was safe for me.”
Serra and her children have still been severely impacted by the outbreak of COVID-19. For safety reasons, this single mom is not allowed to have outside visitors, and while emergency childcare may be available, she doesn’t have any outside help with the kids. Among the millions of students whose classrooms have been closed, her two oldest children are not going to school, and she can no longer work. The family does not go outside, save an infrequent visit to the grocery store, laundromat, or drugstore, and Serra’s future plans to find an apartment, seek out work, and go to college have all been postponed indefinitely .
“It’s very frustrating—that my life is on hold and it’s a waiting game,” she says. “And it’s nerve-wracking, honestly. Very nerve-wracking.”
Serra receives cash assistance from the government, as well as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. “And, luckily, since I’m here in the shelter, I don’t really have financial responsibilities, like my own necessities and whatnot,” she continues. “And thank God, because, honestly, if I had my own apartment I would be very scared right now. So, luckily, I am here in the shelter, and they’re able to provide anything that I need as long as I reach out to my social worker. So I can consider myself a little better than most right now.”
Still, it is the uncertainty of this unprecedented moment that has Serra worried. In New York City, a person can stay in an emergency shelter for only six months. And while New York governor Andrew M. Cuomo issued an executive order relaxing the 180-day limit, it’s unclear how much longer those staying in shelters will be allowed to remain, or how they’ll be able to secure permanent housing once the crisis passes. As of April 29, 34,648 people reside in a shelter in New York City, according to the Department of Homeless Services, and many of them cannot transition to temporary or long-term housing as a result of the pandemic. Brokers have ceased in-person apartment viewings, mandatory inspections of homes have been postponed, and there have been reports of delayed paperwork for rental-assistance vouchers.
Six days after she spoke to this writer, Serra received a voucher. She has been looking for apartments since. “For a family of four, the budget is $1,580 for rental assistance. But there’s also a security deposit. How I am going to find a two-bedroom, possibly a three-bedroom, with a budget of a studio?” Serra says. “So, yeah, everything is really up in the air.”
What is not uncertain, Corden says, is the increase of domestic-violence cases communities we will see in the near future. “What we’ve all been bracing for is that there will be an uptick in domestic-violence incidents when this is all over,” she says. “Again, in the tight quarters that a lot of people are staying in, it’s more difficult for survivors to reach out. If you have one device in your house, then that might be something that’s actually very closely monitored by the abuser. And if you have your own phone, you might not really have the same ability to text or go online. And it could be that people are staying in place not only because of the even stronger power and control that their abuser has but also because of fears of where they’re going and what kind of danger they might be putting themselves in [in regards to the virus], by virtue of going to a shelter.” (As of mid-April, 460 COVID-19 cases were identified in shelters around New York City.)
While the current global crisis has exacerbated the already devastating issue of interpersonal and gendered violence, Corden hopes this moment will lead to a necessary change in how we, as a culture, support victims of domestic abuse. Instead of asking, “Why didn’t she leave?” Corden hopes we will be better equipped to provide a “menu” of options to victims, tailored to meet their specific needs.
“There is incredible inequality—that, we know—and I think the COVID-19 crisis has really shown just how dramatically it affects people. For very low-income victims who are often people of color, the options are much fewer. It’s a life-or-death matter; it’s not just something you discuss at the dinner table. It really has a huge impact on people’s life chances, and whether or not they’re going to be able to survive a crisis,” she explains. “So I think we do have to start looking at [more options for support].” Those options, Corden explains, should include ongoing rental assistance for low-income victims. ”Maybe coming out of this disaster, there could be some good possibilities to do a better job in the new normal, which is going to be pretty painful.”
As for Serra, she is maintaining hope and looking forward to the future, uncertain though it may be. “People used to look at me and say, ‘Why did you stay that long? Why didn’t you do this? Why didn’t you do that?’ And the only thing I could say is that if I could have, I would have. It’s just not that easy,” she says. “But I did it. I left. It’s still a process—I have nightmares sometimes, and I ask myself, “Should I have stayed?’ But the secret is out: I’m a domestic-violence victim. And now I’m just going to pour my heart out, better myself, and focus on me.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
*Some names and information have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.