A look inside DAWN’s Emergency Communal Shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Adrienne Washington, For the Mirror

The Domestic Abuse Women’s Network (DAWN) has been assisting women and families fleeing domestic abuse in the Seattle area for over 40 years, and is the largest agency serving victims in South King County. The organization’s shelter program manager provides a closer look at the situations that occurred during these unprecedented times involving the COVID-19 pandemic.

In most situations, intimate partner violence occurs inside the home, causing children to be unintentional witnesses of violence. This is why emergency shelters for victims and families affected by domestic violence are needed now more than ever during the pandemic, as survivors need physical distance from their abuser.

DAWN’s emergency confidential shelter in South King County is available to female-identifying victims who are involved in intimate partner violence with high lethality. Aushenae Matthews, the Shelter Program Manager at DAWN, is knowledgeable in all areas of the agency as she has worked roles in every program. Now, she works managing the shelter, overseeing all aspects of housing for survivors and their families.

She explains that in order to be admitted to the emergency shelter, survivors must be fleeing extreme cases of abuse.

“Without our shelter, basically, [the survivor] would be at risk of being killed. That is how high the lethality [must be] to come into our shelter,” Matthews said. “That is inclusive of physical abuse, emotional abuse, technological abuse, stalking, or gang affiliation.”

DAWN’s communal shelter provides 13 rooms for up to 13 families at one time. Families are given their own private room and share the kitchen, living room and bathroom spaces. With COVID-19 variants, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines and mask mandates, the communal living situation has been difficult for families living in the shelter. In a shelter that was once completely full, things look much different during times where families are cautious of catching COVID, or refuse to follow CDC guidelines such as masking.

In one instance, a non-Washington resident family was able to find shelter at the communal living space. According to Matthews, just as the pandemic began, a mother and her newborn baby flew across the country to reach Washington state to evade the violence faced at home. Upon arrival, the mother waited at the airport, contacting local agencies, hoping to find shelter for her and her newborn child. DAWN had enough space at their emergency shelter and was able to provide housing for them on the same day.

“She left with only the clothes on her back, so we had [to provide] her and her baby pretty much everything that you possibly think of to get her settled in and all ready to go with the baby — stroller, formula, clothes,” Matthews said.

Even though the emergency shelter usually provides housing for 30 to 90 days, they were able to make an exception for the family who experienced financial barriers due to the abusive relationship. The family was granted extended residence for a few months until they could find transitional housing.

“We were able to get her a new transitional housing and she was able to save up money and get herself a vehicle and, you know, get her and her baby into transitional housing, where she could have ongoing advocacy and support, and financial assistance,” Aushenae said.