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Funding cuts to Ohio organizations that support crime victims is happening during a ‘perfect storm'

Originally published in Crain's Cleveland Business November 1, 2020

After an influx of money for several years from a federal fund to help crime victims, nonprofits providing direct support for victims are facing dramatic cuts in funding.

The organizations — serving victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and trauma in Northeast Ohio — are cutting staff, rethinking physical space, streamlining services and searching for more financial support as COVID-19 continues to stretch philanthropic capacity.

The Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) of 1984 established the fund, which ebbs and flows with deposits from criminal fines, penalties and other fees collected by federal courts and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The federal money is distributed to states' attorneys general, who then award grants to agencies serving victims of crime. In just two years, Ohio's portion of the fund was cut roughly in half to $55.5 million this year.

The grants come in a year when the pandemic has skyrocketed needs for philanthropic support, significantly restricted fundraising abilities with the cancellation of in-person events and added costs for these nonprofits.

"This is the perfect storm of crisis for nonprofits, and the VOCA cuts were just the icing on the cake," said Terri Heckman, CEO of both the Battered Women's Shelter and the Rape Crisis Center operating in Summit and Medina counties, which combined received $1.3 million.

The total was a 45% cut to each of the affiliated nonprofits — far greater than the 15% to 20% cut for which they had braced.

Domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers, trauma recovery centers and others in Northeast Ohio have had to make fast adjustments since the cuts went into effect with the new grant cycle, which began Oct. 1.

Nonprofits have long known VOCA funds would not remain at the heightened levels they've seen in recent years since Congress raised the cap on what could be distributed to the states, but the depth of the cuts this year were greater than anticipated.

"We knew that we could not be over-reliant on VOCA forever; we knew eventually there would be cuts to VOCA," said Sondra Miller, president and CEO of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center. "We weren't expecting such dramatic cuts this soon."

The Ohio Attorney General's Office in 2017 used VOCA funding to create a network of Trauma Recovery Centers in the state, including one at Circle Health Services (now affiliated with The Centers for Families and Children), which focused on supporting Black victims of crime, particularly those who have experienced domestic violence and sexual assault.

This year, Circle Health lost all of its VOCA funding for that center, which served 573 people in the last fiscal year. Without it, the nonprofit won't be able to offer these services at all, other than some counseling services, said Eric Morse, president and CEO of the Centers and Circle Health.

"People we're currently serving, we'll continue to provide some counseling to them, but our ability to respond on a 24/7 basis, our ability to provide transportation assistance and housing assistance is completely gone," he said.

They're working to transition clients to adequate safe housing by the end of the month. This cut has ripple effects beyond Circle Health clients. MetroHealth's Trauma Recovery Center, another VOCA recipient that saw a 39% cut this year, worked closely with Circle Health, which provided the bulk of emergency housing for the domestic violence and gun violence victims.

Because the center is part of a large health system that can fill gaps at least for now, the cuts aren't as dire for the center. But Sarah Hendrickson, director of MetroHealth's Trauma Recovery Center and its Center for Health Resilience, said while she's hopeful and grateful for any cushion, she doesn't want to rely on it, especially with financial pressures the pandemic has placed on health care providers.

Cleveland Clinic also received grants totaling $192,000 this year (a 78% cut from 2019) and is in the process of determining the impact to services. University Hospitals received a total of $584,000, which is a 39% cut that will affect program expansion, but the system will be able to continue to operate at full capacity.

Years of growing grants For several years, VOCA distributions grew substantially, which was transformational for some organizations, but some were hesitant to lean too heavily on the temporary boost. With the stream of cash it received from VOCA in the past few years, the Battered Women's Shelter and the Rape Crisis Center operating in Summit and Medina counties were "able to help really transition lives and not just Band-Aid them," by expanding services, raising staff salaries, adding wraparound services and improving infrastructure, including moving to a new shelter location without acquiring debt, Heckman said.

The Journey Center for Safety and Healing (formerly the Domestic Violence and Child Advocacy Center of Cleveland) used the funds to help open the Canopy Child Advocacy Center, but avoided other expansions into new service lines, said CEO Melissa Graves. The Cleveland Rape Crisis Center's VOCA grants ballooned as more funds were made available, climbing to more than $4.6 million in 2018 and $4.3 million in 2019. Miller said this allowed the organization to grow staff, services, locations and the number of people it served. Then came this year's cuts.

‘Lost half of our projected revenue'

The Cleveland Rape Crisis Center took a 55% cut in its VOCA grant this year and lost funding from United Way of Greater Cleveland, which has in recent years retooled its approach to allocating grants. Add in fundraising limitations and "we lost half of our projected revenue in 120 days," Miller said. "Almost like $3.4 million out of a $6.8 million budget this year."

In anticipation of VOCA cuts, Miller decided the center would leave its downtown office and sublease the space through the end of its lease in 2025 with no immediate plans to return downtown. This was possible in part due to the introduction of telehealth services during the pandemic and the center's several satellite locations, including one that opened in September in Clark-Fulton and a drop-in center for survivors of human trafficking expected to open early next year.

Journey Center also lost some of its United Way of Greater Cleveland funding. Between that and a 36% cut from VOCA, Graves had to cut $840,000 from its $4.5 million budget. The center eliminated or didn't fill 11 FTEs.

Meanwhile, she is facing rising costs of remote working technology for staff, cleaning supplies, PPE and shelter meals as it shifted away from the cost-saving approach of family style meals. Plus, the center had to reduce the number of people in shelter for the sake of social distancing and pay for alternative housing to continue to get people to safe places.

Genesis House Shelter, the domestic violence shelter in Lorain County, received more than $300,000 in VOCA funding at its peak, a substantial influx of cash for the nonprofit's roughly $1 million budget, said executive director Virginia Beckman. She focused the funds on one-time expenses that wouldn't add annual costs, including making rooms wheelchair accessible and purchasing a new van. Still, this year's 32% cut was greater than the 20% she budgeted and has meant letting a legal advocate go. She's trying to access other funding that she knows might be a long shot, such as grants from national grocers that may be willing to fund groceries for her shelter.

Cuts at the Battered Women's Shelter and the Rape Crisis Center operating in Summit and Medina counties meant cutting 18 staff members this month. Heckman pulled all staff from the courthouse that helped people getting protection orders and dropped the minimum number of on-duty crisis intervention staff in the shelter from two to three. She also cut all eight staff on her outreach team, which during COVID-19 shifted from in-person community outreach (raising awareness, looking for volunteers and getting resources to victims) to helping in the shelter with new needs, including supporting kids' homeschooling.

On top of all of these losses, COVID hasn't stopped victimization. Many worry that domestic violence, which crosses all demographic boundaries, is growing as people are isolated at home, facing financial stress and general uncertainty.

Some victims may not be able to find privacy to call for help. Heckman said people have come to the shelter after months of being manipulated into thinking all shelters had COVID-19 outbreaks. Graves said she is hearing from survivors that abuse is escalating in frequency and severity.

"This really is a very dangerous time when there is more need for child abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence (support services) and we're experiencing a big decrease," she said.

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