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Aspen nonprofit adjusts to helping victims of domestic, sexual abuse amid pandemic challenges

Response finds new ways of outreach amid business shutdowns; “Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” survivor says

Shannon Birzon, support group leader and volunteer advocate for Response’s crisis help line, works in the office in the Aspen location on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Amid the uncertainty and challenges of life in a pandemic world, escaping an abusive situation can feel close to impossible for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

“You can imagine, you’re already living paycheck to paycheck, you don’t have money coming in from one or both people’s incomes, the idea that you can leave and live somewhere else is really hard to imagine,” said Shannon Meyer, executive director for the Aspen-based nonprofit Response. “And if that somewhere else is with friends, suddenly people were not really able to or willing to have other people from outside of their COVID bubble.”

Response can help: the organization supports survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault through an extensive array of services, including a 24-hour help line, emergency shelter, transitional housing, rental assistance and legal advocacy.



But COVID-19 has also complicated when and how outreach and communication between the organization and potential clients occurs, prompting concerns that those who need help may not be aware of the services and support Response provides.

Though the organization continues to work with law enforcement on a referral program, the pandemic has limited the number of people who may see some methods of outreach like bus placards or strategically placed brochures in salons, bars and restaurants; those sectors all took a hit amid COVID-19 restrictions.




The pandemic has exacerbated abusive situations while making it harder for victims to find a safe space in which they can call for help, Meyer said.

“It has been really hard knowing that, statistically, domestic violence and sexual assault goes up when where’s external crises like this,” Meyer said. “People aren’t suddenly getting along in an abusive relationship because they’re stuck at home together. Things are probably very likely getting worse.”

To address some of those pandemic barriers, Response launched an online chat to supplement the 24-hour help line and implemented signage at pharmacies and grocery stores, two of the few places that most people still went every week throughout the pandemic.

But there are also fewer opportunities for friends, family and community members to identify abusive situations and direct victims toward the right resources.

“What’s different is they don’t have the time when their spouse or their partner is at work or visiting friends where they can call for help,” Meyer said. “And they’re not seeing friends who might be encouraging them to get help or noticing that there’s something funky going on. That kind of community eyes on (abuse) is not happening.”

The obstacles COVID-19 poses come on top of the already significant challenge that comes with knowing when to seek help in the first place.

Get support, give support

If you are a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault, call the Response 24-hour help line at 970-925-7233 or visit responsehelps.org. The online chat feature is located in the lower right corner of the web page; click on the purple speech bubble icon to send a message.

The support group for survivors of domestic and sexual abuse meets two Thursdays per month on Zoom; the next meeting is Feb. 18. To sign up, email info@responsehelps.org.

To learn more about Response housing services, including emergency accommodations, transitional housing and rent assistance for survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault, visit responsehelps.org/services/housing.

Response is also seeking more advocates to work the 24-hour help line; bilingual volunteers are especially encouraged to apply. Visit responsehelps.org/volunteer to register.

For some, the situation can become so familiar that it is difficult for victims to identify that it isn’t a “normal” relationship, said Shannon Birzon, who leads a survivor’s support group, works as an administrative assistant and volunteers as an advocate for the help line with Response.

“It’s very familiar because it’s the water, most likely, in which they have swum for many, many years,” Birzon said. “They’re really deserving of something different than what they have experienced for so many years.”

Birzon encourages anyone who may be in a domestic violence situation to question what they consider “normal” behavior and seek out mentors who are in healthy relationships. In her work with the support group and the help line, Birzon’s role is often that of the listener who can offer assurance and guidance to those facing uncertainty.

“Sometimes it’s just someone really wanting to be heard and seen in their experience,” Birzon said. “They want to have reassurance, I think, that what they’re experiencing — they’re not crazy, that what they’re experiencing is indeed really not OK. … A person who is frequently in that situation has some form of self blame, and I’m able to reflect back that it’s not their fault and that they did the very best they could.”

Taking the first step and reaching out for help is no easy feat, but doing so can make a world of difference for survivors of abuse.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” said one Response client who spoke on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of her situation.

She was stalked and assaulted by a former partner shortly before the pandemic began and reached out to Response after a Basalt police officer referred her to the organization.

“I truly feel like they saved my life,” she said. “This guy almost ruined my life, and they helped me stand up and get it back.”

Response helped her find a safe housing situation that would also accommodate her two dogs right before lockdown and provided her with grocery and gas cards; as a massage therapist, her work was severely limited by COVID-19 restrictions, adding financial hardship to an already difficult situation.

“I had been operating at such a high level of anxiety that I didn’t even remember what feeling normal felt like until I was in a safe spot,” she said. “If I would have been stuck in that house, with him knowing where I live, it would have been a nightmare.”

She has lived in the valley for nearly 15 years and never thought she would leave. Response made it possible for her to stay.

“They are angels in our community,” she said. “I can’t even tell you how appreciative I am, and I can’t even say thank you enough to them — I don’t even know how to repay them.

“I truly don’t think I would either be alive or that I would be in this valley if it wasn’t for them — I know I wouldn’t be.”

kwilliams@aspentimes.com


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