Day By Day: Inside A Domestic Violence Shelter In The Coronavirus Era

The pandemic has stretched this New Mexico domestic violence shelter down to its last dollar. Its executive director and staff are doing all they can to keep the doors open amid a spike in people needing services.

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The executive director of New Mexico’s largest domestic violence shelter hadn’t yet had his first meeting of the day, but he was already in the middle of a crisis. Henry Brutus, who has run La Casa since 2018, checked his budget, the surge in people seeking services, and then, to be certain, the day’s date. It was only the first day of the month, but the shelter had already spent the last of its funds.

But before he could deal with that crisis, the distressed faces of his employees started popping across his screen as they logged on for the staff’s first coronavirus-era Zoom meeting. With tired eyes and shaky voices, everyone had the same question: What about our jobs?

His employees were worried about layoffs, even as their jobs had just become much harder. Stay-at-home orders across the globe have left people in abusive relationships in greater peril, according to Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. “This is stressful for everyone, but especially for survivors.” At La Casa, the number of clients seeking a place to stay had spiked 75% since the coronavirus outbreak had confined people to their homes. But the state’s new social distancing mandate required shelters to cut their capacity in half. Funding from private and public sources, meanwhile, had dried up.

La Casa and its staff are used to being on the brink. The main shelter in Las Cruces, New Mexico, sits on the brink of Texas to its east and Mexico, to its south. It’s also on the brink of the rural-urban divide, serving Las Cruces, a city of 100,000 people, and Anthony, New Mexico, a map dot of 9,300. Many of Anthony’s residents are agricultural workers, and 45% of them live below the poverty line. Nearly half of the people in town do not have internet access.

As Brutus looked at the worried faces of his staffers on that first meeting of the day, he needed to bring them back from yet another brink if they were — once again — to do more with less.

The 48-year-old Brutus, bald and with a thick black beard, came to La Casa after a career in hospital management. When he was looking for a new challenge, friends told him about the job at the shelter. He came to the shelter with no experience in domestic violence intervention, only a nagging question: “If men are the culprits most of the time,” he says, “why aren't men coming up with solutions to the problem or at least at the table making decisions or helping make decisions?”

At La Casa, he brought his hospital management expertise and love of five-year projections and turned the sputtering nonprofit into a thriving enterprise. But nothing had prepared him for how to weather a pandemic.

As the Zoom meeting started, Brutus’s workers began, one by one, to talk about how hard it was to do their jobs during the pandemic:

I have a 2-year-old at home who makes it impossible to call our clients and check up on them, one said.

I don’t have access to the internet to telecommute, said another.

Others, like the employees who were abuse survivors turned single mothers, worried aloud about layoffs. La Casa’s human resources specialist, Vicki Lusk, jumped in with the details about how the shelter might tap into federal funding from the CARES Act and other government programs that could keep more of the shelter’s 46 full-time and 2 part-time workers on payroll.

Brutus suggested some employees could pick up donations that needed to be organized and cataloged. Some of the donations, like costume jewelry, would go in gift baskets to help people them through what Brutus said is “often the lowest moment of their lives.”

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No sooner had the meeting ended when another staffer reached out. There was a new online review of the shelter. And it wasn’t good. A woman who said she was traveling across the country, two weeks from giving birth, said La Casa had denied her request to stay there.

Brutus started calling staffers and asking what had happened. He found out she hadn’t been abused. Technically, then, she wasn’t Brutus’s responsibility. But he still wanted to help her. He reached her on the phone to suggest an alternate plan. She refused, and Brutus hung up, defeated.

He wondered aloud about whether he could have found a way to help her. How, if it hadn’t been for COVID-19, he could have met her in person, picked up the phone alongside her to call other service providers, or even taken her there himself.

Brutus thought about her for days, but there were other pressing tasks.

The shelter ran a Batterer’s Intervention Program — a service that works with abusers to equip them with tools to address their anger and frustration in constructive ways. La Casa’s supportive services director, Pat Acosta, was working with Brutus to take the program online for those with internet access. She also drafted a series of worksheets that would be a workaround for those without.

Brutus felt like the effort was paying off when Acosta got a call from one abuser who reported using the breathing techniques she had taught him to diffuse a tense situation. Another reported he’d moved away from his partner to protect her.

Then Brutus called hotels and motels around Las Cruces. Shelter staffers were reporting a surge of calls from young mothers aged 18 to 23 years old, some with newborn babies.

When La Casa ran out of beds, Brutus worked to find vacancies in hotels, which allow more social distancing.

But spending on hotels took its toll on his already tattered $2 million budget: $70 per room per night on top of the expense of feeding and transporting their guests to necessary appointments. When he called one hotel manager, he said she said she didn’t want anyone who had COVID-19.

“We don’t screen people in or out,” he tried to explain.

After a day of more calls and more requests for help, a quiet acceptance started to sink in.

He’d prided himself on all those five-year plans. All those long-range forecasts.

The virus and the accompanying financial collapse had forced him to accept the advice that many of his own staffers had doled out to their clientele: Sometimes the key is to just get through the day.

By the middle of that afternoon, Brutus said, “I just wanted the day to start over.”

And it did. The next day, his phone rang. An employee with New Mexico’s Children, Youth, and Families Department was on the line, telling Brutus that it had additional funding for La Casa — just enough to get it to the end of April.

As May begins, Brutus must start the whole process of keeping the shelter going all over again.

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