Dionna Smith is safe now.
The 25-year-old East Moline native no longer is anyone's target.
A "big kid at heart," Smith hardly can wait to move into her new place with her two daughters and the son she is expecting in the spring.
“We’re probably going to run around in our pajamas and sing," she said. "I don’t know — play with toys.”
And she'll cook whatever makes her happy.
“Like pasta,” she said. “The baby likes it, too. I make really good spaghetti. Fry me some mushrooms. Mmm. And I can eat that all by myself.”
She smiles a lot these days. But behind that smile, feelings remain raw. And the fear hasn't left her eyes.
But Smith is safe now, living in a local shelter for women like her — women abused by the men in their lives.
The statistics are as alarming as ever: A woman somewhere in the United States is beaten every nine seconds. While the need for local services is accordingly high, the agencies that supply them are being squeezed more than ever, because private and public funding is drying up.
While Smith and her kids are safe, survivors seeking shelter six months from now will face waiting lists.
Waiting lists and emergencies do not mix.
Closed for now
Hidden behind heavy foliage in a Rock Island neighborhood sits an unassuming three-story house with no sign of life.
The domestic-violence shelter that existed there, courtesy of Rock Island-based Christian Care, closed last year.
Opened in 1981 and funded mostly with private donations, the Shelter for Abused Women and Children became too expensive to support. A "myriad of reasons," including maintenance costs, forced the closure after 35 years, said Jeanette Peutz, treasurer of Christian Care’s board of directors.
“We’re looking for something not quite as expensive,” Peutz said. “Financially, we’re not seeing it as a viable place. We do need some place but not there.”
Christian Care wants to reopen a domestic violence shelter, she said, but board members haven't yet talked about details. Meanwhile, survivors are being turned away or referred to other agencies, including Family Resources Inc., which also faces possible cuts in services.
Peutz said the board would consider applying for state grants, but the state of Illinois already is failing to fund existing services amid an ongoing budget crisis.
Davenport-based Family Resources has relied upon a $240,000 Illinois grant to fund its Moline outreach office. Last summer, about a month after lawmakers passed a temporary stop-gap budget, the agency was notified the domestic violence grant wasn’t included. They scrambled to cover costs.
But the outlook for 2017 is even worse.
Because of the state budget impasse, two-thirds of the Family Resources staff in Moline — at least nine full-time positions — will have to be cut. In 2016, the staff served 1,200 survivors of domestic violence. This year, the remaining workers will be equipped to serve only 420.
“It’s very difficult to know that two-thirds of survivors may not be served,” said Ashley Schwalm, director of the agency's domestic violence program, Safe Path. “We do a lot of referrals, but making referrals is a lot harder, because other agencies are in a similar situation.”
She’s never seen it this bad.
Family Resources runs a 54-bed domestic violence shelter in an undisclosed location. It opened in 1992, and as word got out, more and more battered women took advantage of the shelter’s safe environment and counseling and referral services.
The agency's 24-hour crisis line answered more than 5,700 calls last year. In 2013, it took 6,800 calls on the crisis line. But the seemingly encouraging trend did not hold.
The shelter took in 637 victims in 2016, up from the year before, when it had 542 victims. In 2013, Family Resources sheltered 215 victims.
And that is where Smith and her children sought solace. They encountered no waiting list, no referral, no being turned away at their time of most desperate need.
Schwalm isn’t so sure Family Resources can continue to accommodate every victim seeking shelter, especially with the Christian Care shelter gone and nothing to fill the gap left by Illinois' financial woes.
“I see the possibility of our shelter being full, and we’ll have to start looking for other options for survivors,” Schwalm said.
Options could include temporary stays in hotels, bus tickets to send survivors to relatives out of state and referrals to shelters outside the Quad-Cities, including transportation. But even those options cost money that may not be available.
Most worrisome to those with experience in domestic violence is the critical role shelters play when victims finally decide to flee.
“The most dangerous time is when you leave,” Schwalm said.
'Crying and terrified'
The first time Smith tried to escape her abusive ex-boyfriend, he chased her down.
She had one of her daughters, a baby at the time, buckled into the back seat, and Smith's younger sister was in the front seat.
“We were in a high-speed chase, and he ran us off the road,” Smith said.
She hit the brakes and got out to check on her daughter. Meanwhile, her sister found a dish pan in the car and chucked it at his rear window. He retaliated, grabbing the pan and throwing it through Smith’s back window, throwing shattered glass onto the back seat.
As Smith reached for her baby, she said, her drunk and belligerent boyfriend tried to choke her, pushing her into the car.
“I was crying and terrified,” she said.
She managed to escape to her mother’s house. Eventually, however, she went back to her ex. And the cycle began again.
The couple's three-year relationship was nothing but turbulent, including one of the times Smith told her boyfriend she was pregnant.
“We were going back and forth, and he was telling me he was going to kill me because this wasn’t his baby, and he would kill the man I’m pregnant by,” she said, adding the pair fought frequently. "I just didn’t win."
Advocates say it takes victims an average of seven times before they finally leave an abusive relationship for good.
Smith said she would go back for her children’s sake. She thought they needed their father and, besides, without him they would be homeless. She also had been threatened enough times to know, if she did leave, he would punish her.
A moment of clarity came while her boyfriend was at work. Smith started hyperventilating and collapsed on the kitchen floor. She screamed, curled up her pregnant body and cried. Her frightened little girls went to her.
“I realized I got to get me together,” she said. “I really should just go.”
A relative called Family Resources’ crisis line. An advocate helped Smith determine the best time to leave, met her at a safe location and took her to the shelter.
“No one knows where I am,” she said. “No one can get to me.”
She came with nothing. But she found her first day “surprisingly peaceful.”
Her daughters seemed “very chipper” as they learned how to climb up and down bunk beds. They even turned the beds into a play area.
In the shelter, Smith has been working on confidence building with her eldest daughter while toning up her own spirit.
“I learned as a younger girl not to let anyone steal my sunshine,” she said. “And sometimes, we have a habit of stealing our own.”
No waiting list
One local shelter manager scoffs at the thought of ever having to use a waiting list, no matter how intense the need becomes.
“We will always squeeze one more in if we have to,” said Kit Miller, shelter manager at Winnie’s Place.
Churches United of the Quad-City Area opened Winnie’s Place in 2006 as other shelters were consistently running at capacity or turning people away, Miller said. The privately funded nonprofit consists of apartments in an undisclosed Moline location that can house up to nine families.
In early January, children’s bikes leaned against the building while, inside, laundry baskets and toys lined the hallways, and Christmas decorations hung throughout.
Miller has worked in the field for nearly 30 years and said, “Society as a whole has probably gotten more violent,” so the need for safe houses is as urgent as ever.
Survivors hear about Winnie’s Place mostly through word of mouth, Miller said. When they arrive at the shelter, they are given a program outline and a set of rules to follow.
“Everybody has rules in their home,” Miller said. “Ours happens to be written down.”
Clients can stay up to six months and must immediately pursue employment and permanent housing opportunities as well as mental health and substance abuse services, if needed. Miller said Winnie’s Place serves primarily those living “extremely below poverty” level, and almost all of her clients arrive with children.
Miller formerly managed Christian Care’s domestic violence shelter and was stunned when she heard it closed.
“Too bad they didn’t keep it going,” she said. “It is what it is. We’ll see how it plays out.”
Unlike Winnie’s Place, the Mercer County Family Crisis Center in Aledo, Illinois, is mostly state funded. But Marla Reynolds, the executive director, said her center is prepared to weather the upcoming funding storm and to continue to provide services to 300 abuse victims a year.
“I heard something the other day that made me pop my cork,” Reynolds said. “Illinois is not likely to have a budget for two years. I thought, ‘Oh, for crying out loud. That would push things to the limit.’”
Two-thirds of the center’s funding comes from an Illinois Department of Human Services grant. But, Reynolds said, her staff anticipated state budget woes and set money aside.
“They say prepare for a rainy day,” she said. “I guess that rainy day is here now. We’re going to make it just fine, because we’ve planned ahead.”
Like Winnie’s Place, the Family Crisis Center staff is determined not to turn anyone away.
“I’ve been here 24 years, and I take pride that we’ve never turned anybody away,” Reynolds said. “We don’t say, ‘No.’ We make whatever referrals we can. And if something doesn’t work, we tell them to come back. We’ll try another plan.
“Our doors are always open.”
Fill your cup
Family Resources has had to adjust the way it provides services in response to the volatile nature of state funding. One major change has come in the form of emergency housing assistance.
Before finding the Family Resources shelter, Smith got by on so-called couch surfing, even after she had children.
She said she never really had her own room. She often slept on friends’ couches rent free or as compensation for watching their children.
“I’ve been bouncing my whole life,” she said.
Stays with friends typically lasted for months for Smith, and the situations often were stressful and uncomfortable.
“And then, of course, when you become a parent, nothing is comfortable if it doesn’t belong to you,” she said.
To describe her stay at the domestic violence shelter, Smith unwound a scarf from her neck and laid it across her lap. “See all these different grooves in here,” she said, pointing to the scarf. “These are all the nice people ready to help you — a nice little knitted group of folks.”
She placed a half empty water bottle on the scarf. “Now this is you,” she said. “See, you’re beat down, half full already. You’re in the shelter for a while.”
Then she opened a can of pop and started filling the bottle.
“This is what they do for you at Family Resources,” she said. “Fill it right on into your cup.”
When survivors like Smith first arrive at the shelter, the director at Safe Path said, staff helps them figure out what goals they want to work on, empowering them right off the bat to make their own choices.
“They’ve been controlled enough,” Schwalm said. “We don’t say, 'You’ve got to do this and this.' We don’t require them to attend meetings, and we don’t do community meals. They can eat whenever they want.
“We try to make them feel as at home as possible.”
The average length of stay in a Family Resources shelter has decreased from 90 days in 2013 to 28 days currently. The change came after the agency embraced what Schwalm called a “housing first” model. Survivors are able to access the agency’s network of reliable landlords to find rental property, and advocates can assist in making calls and setting up appointments. Family Resources then has money available to help pay security deposits.
“I’m still in shock about this apartment,” Smith said of her new home. “I got the floor plan in my pocket. I wrote all over it.”
And what is the first thing she wants to do in her new place?
“I’m going to lay on the floor and cry.”