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As domestic violence shelters deal with COVID-19 and extra expenses, Franken fashions a fundraiser

It’s a very financially volatile time, with Women’s Advocates adjusting to the new realities of living and working amid COVID-19 restrictions.

The coronavirus pandemic has created close quarters for families everywhere, which means increased awareness and concern for organizations like St. Paul-based Women’s Advocates.

And while some women’s shelters have seen an increase in calls, in Minnesota the situation remains fluid.

“I’ve been hearing from more people around the state and a few around the country and it’s all over the map,” said Estelle Brouwer, executive director of Women’s Advocates. “Some places are seeing a lot more calls and some places are seeing a lot less calls, like we are. I think that the call numbers are probably fairly representing what’s going on out there. I don’t think we need to [cite an increase or decrease in] call numbers to know that this is just a really dangerous time.”

Estelle Brouwer
Estelle Brouwer

It’s also a very financially volatile time, with Women’s Advocates adjusting to the new realities of living and working amid COVID-19 restrictions.

“We’re providing hazard pay for our frontline staff, because we want to make sure that they’re getting compensated for incredibly important work and the risk that they’re taking,” said Brouwer. “We also are planning for relief staff in the event that our staff and their families start to get sick and people are needing to take leave. The thing about a shelter setting is that even though we’re taking all the precautions and we’re having people wear masks and we’re cleaning fanatically and everything, we feel fairly sure that once it’s in our shelter, it’s probably going to spread pretty quickly.

“We have to be ready for a bunch of staff to be out all at once, and also for our residents to be sick. So we’re looking at securing some hotel space outside of our shelter where families could be in quarantine, and where we can also do a better job of social distancing, because right now they’re living in really close quarters.”

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All of which means Women’s Advocates is incurring new expenses, and, given such developments as the as-yet un-reauthorized Violence Against Women Act, a concern about future fundraising.

“We’ve got a lot of extra expenses for cleaning supplies and all the extra stuff we have to do to make sure that we’re using best practices to control the spread,” said Brouwer. “Beyond the shelter, we have a program we call Safety After Shelter where we support survivors after they’ve left shelter and we work with them in the community to make sure that they’re staying safe and getting all the connections that they need and are not isolated, and also helping them pay their rent.

“So we need some extra funding right now to make sure that we can continue to accept survivors into that program during this time. If we don’t have some extra funding, we might have to shut. … I don’t want to say ‘shut the program down,’ because people who are already in the program would stay in it. But we just would have to put any new acceptances on hold, which would be terrible.”

One Women’s Advocates supporter is former U.S. Sen. Al Franken, who last week sent an email blast to his supporters, letting them know that he’s come up with a benefit for the shelter.

Wrote Franken:

Some of you may know that I have an odd skill. I can draw a map of the United States from memory with all fifty states. It’s impressive. I’ve just posed a video of me drawing the map while I talk you through how to draw it yourself.

This is meant to be a fun activity for anyone, especially kids who are cooped up at home with their parents. It takes some time to get it down. But most of us have a lot of time these days. I’m also using this as a fundraising tool to benefit a women’s shelter in Minnesota. Women’s Advocates has provided housing and support for survivors of domestic abuse in St. Paul since 1974. And the need is especially high right now because there has been a significant uptick in domestic violence nationwide as families isolate at home with so many experiencing tremendous financial stress.

It is so important that women have somewhere to go at a time when we are all trapped. Trapped with your loved ones is one thing. Trapped with an abusive partner can be lethal. So I am doing an online raffle. The winner will get the map I drew with my personalized signature to you.

Here’s what I want you to do. Click here to watch the video. You will be absolutely astounded, I guarantee.

And then:

“Women’s Advocates is a wonderful organization. And for years, a significant percentage of their annual budget has been raised at house parties during the spring. Obviously, that’s not happening this year. So please help them and help women and their children who have nowhere else to go. And my Midwest Values PAC will match the first $25,000.”

Franken resigned from the Senate in December 2017, after accusations of sexual impropriety. He contacted Women’s Advocates two weeks ago, and the shelter welcomes his fundraising efforts at a time of unprecedented uncertainty.

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“It didn’t come to be through us. We did not go for it. It came to us as a surprise,” said Brouwer. “I had a really nice conversation with him yesterday and I think that his interest in this issue is really sincere. He knows we have an important mission. I don’t feel like I’m in a position to judge right now but if he sincerely wants to do something to support our important mission, I’m accepting that.

“Everybody who does this work, we’re kind of staring down some [dire fundraising realities] that are supposed to hit us next year. And I felt it was important context for him to have as a policymaker and as a former senator, because this is government funding that’s looking like it’s going to dry up.”