Local nonprofit Response gets new grants to help victims escape abusers

Two large grants next year will allow a local nonprofit to employ a new concept to better help domestic-violence victims in the upper Roaring Fork Valley escape their abusers.

The program will provide hundreds of thousands of dollars to Response so the agency — which serves Pitkin County and western Eagle County — can provide housing for domestic-violence survivors even for long-term periods, said Shannon Meyer, the nonprofit’s executive director.

“Up until now, the only thing we’ve been able to offer to our clients of domestic violence has been short-term housing assistance,” Meyer said Friday. “Area hotels donate stays up to three nights, but that’s really not enough. And we don’t have a shelter.”

Now with a $400,000 federal grant and additional funds from a private donor, Response will be able to offer short-, medium- and long-term housing solutions — including paying rent — for domestic -violence victims who lack the means to leave their abusers and live elsewhere, she said.

Known as the “housing first model,” it posits that people under stress by domestic violence, substance abuse or other traumatic situations like mental illness cannot begin to right themselves and their families until they achieve a degree of stability, Meyer said. That often means safe, affordable housing.

“People can’t deal with other issues until they’re safe,” Meyer said. “We don’t want anyone to choose between being safe and having a home.”

While there’s a domestic-violence shelter in Garfield County, there isn’t one in Pitkin County or western Eagle County. However, Meyer said a new movement has taken root that eschews the theory of housing victims of trauma together in a location that’s difficult to keep secret, in favor of several smaller locations and rental assistance payments.

Response’s new program — which will begin Jan. 1 — will offer a three-tiered system for domestic-abuse victims searching for a new start, she said.

First, the agency’s emergency response system of offering hotel rooms for as many as three nights to people no matter the time of day or night they call for help won’t change. The next step, however, will be new, Meyer said.

Response will rent between one and three housing units in the valley for those who need longer-term assistance from a week up to three months, she said.

“Response will rent a movable shelter,” Meyer said.

The final piece of the program is to offer long-term assistance to people, with the goal of eventually getting them to a place where they can pay their own rent and support themselves, she said. That could mean paying all of someone’s rent on a gradually decreasing scale, helping someone come up with a chunk of money to move into a new home or even simply helping someone rent a moving van to move to a better place, Meyer said.

“It’s not like we will pay someone’s rent from here to eternity,” she said. “We’re helping someone get back on their feet.”

The key to the program is flexibility, Meyer said. Pilot programs in the state — including one in the Vail-Avon area and another in Frisco — have already shown that a rigidly structured program won’t work because everyone’s situation is different, she said.

Flexibility means Response will be able to offer major assistance — like paying a family’s full rent or mortgage — all the way down to simply helping someone pay a utility bill for a month, Meyer said.

“It provides options to people who may not think they have any,” she said. “Often the most dangerous time is when people are trying to leave (an abuser).”

So far this year, Response has fielded about 265 crisis calls and is handling 140 clients in an area with a population of around 25,000, Meyer said.

“That’s no higher than other areas,” she said. “It’s just higher than people expect.”

Nan Sundeen, Pitkin County’s director of Health and Human Services, agreed that the program is necessary.

“The need is out there,” Sundeen said. “We get referrals every time police respond to a domestic-violence situation when children are in the home. We’re busy all the time with referrals.”

She also emphasized how important Response’s new program will be to domestic-violence victims who need a viable escape plan.

“You have to be able to offer people a real solution, or why would they go?” Sundeen said. “Without housing and housing support, you can’t get on your feet in this community.

“It’s the biggest thing we see here.”

Brian Olson, police chief in Snowmass Village and a member of Response’s board of directors, also said the new program is a big deal.

“It’s really exciting for us,” he said. “It’s a step in the right direction to provide the missing link for victims to get out of a lousy situation and make changes. It’s a segue to move to the next level, the next life.”

The $400,000 grant over two years came about after the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice notified counties that the amount of money it was to distribute in 2019 was going from about $8 million to about $30 million, Meyer said. The money comes from the federal government via the Crime Victims’ Rights Act and is made up of fees paid by people convicted of white-collar crimes, she said.

Response initially asked for $600,000 for two years of the program, Meyer said. A local donor who wants to keep the size of the donation under wraps was able to provide the remaining funds for 2019, she said.

Those in charge of the pilot programs in neighboring resort areas found they spent the money they received in eight months, indicating a sizable need, Meyer said. She said she expects a similar situation here and is in the process of sending out fundraising letters to try and avoid that problem.

“There’s so much demand,” Meyer said. “People tend to underestimate how much help they will need. They’re so grateful and not wanting to take more than their share.

“We have to say, ‘Let’s make sure you can still eat at the end of the day.’”

Victims of domestic violence or sexual assault of Pitkin County and western Eagle County can call Response’s emergency help line at 970-925-SAFE (7233) for help.