In Transition

When Sarah E. Gyorog first heard about Massachusetts’ stay-at-home order, she immediately thought, “but home isn’t safe for everybody.” As the executive director of Transition House, Cambridge’s sole domestic violence shelter, she knew that the order could pose increased risk for survivors.
By Josie F. Abugov and Saima S. Iqbal

When Sarah E. Gyorog first heard about Massachusetts’ stay-at-home order, she immediately thought, “but home isn’t safe for everybody.” As the executive director of Transition House, Cambridge’s sole domestic violence shelter, she knew that the order could pose increased risk for survivors.

“Domestic violence thrives in isolation — that’s its best friend,” Gyorog explains, adding that people who use abusive behaviors tend to isolate their victims as a tactic. The order only makes “[survivors’] worlds that much smaller,” and domestic violence all the more common and difficult to report. Gyorog calls the current lockdown, along with its additional economic repercussions, “a pressure cooker” for domestic violence.

Soon after the order began on March 23, the agency’s emergency hotline saw “a dramatic decrease” in calls. But while the number of calls plummeted, the intensity of the calls rose, Gyorog says. Those who called displayed “higher anxiety [and] higher levels of need,” so much so that what would typically last 15 minutes took up an hour. Now, weeks into the shelter-in-place, more calls are starting to trickle in. They remain just as pressing.

Jeremy H. Warnick, spokesperson for the Cambridge Police Department, says that the department also anticipated a “sharp increase in domestic violence” but has yet to see one. Reports of domestic disputes and assault for the first seven weeks of the lockdown are consistent with figures from the past two years. He notes, however, that domestic violence is often “vastly underreported for different reasons.” For instance, Gyorog says, members of some communities do not feel safe calling the police for help.

“We have to respect that different communities approach this problem in different ways,” she emphasizes.

Gyorog maintains that just as everyone is weighing the risks of their daily actions, survivors are weighing the risks of managing the situation at home or seeking outside help. “Everybody’s weighing the exact same risk factors that you and I are weighing,” she says. “Everybody is safety planning on some level anyway, and so people who are experiencing domestic violence are also safety planning.”

Moreover, many survivors are unaware of the services still available to them or unable to safely access them.

Transition House — which in 1976 became the nation’s second-ever domestic violence shelter when two activists piled mattresses into their apartments — is one of a few agencies in the state to have kept its doors open. Most have closed and moved all their residents to hotel rooms.

While Transition House rents a few hotel rooms in the neighborhood, its infrastructure allows it to safely house the majority of its residents on its premises. To minimize in-person contact, each of the nine families in the shelter is using its own bathroom, and the agency is limiting the number of onsite staff.

Still, Transition House is continuing to pay all of its employees, even those who are no longer working at the shelter. With help from the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, the agency is also raising wages for onsite employees by 50 percent. “That’s the way it should be because they’re taking a risk,” Gyorog says.

The shelter was at capacity long before the stay-at-home order began. When spots for beds open, they tend to fill up quickly, sometimes within hours.

While the stay-at-home order has drastically changed life at the emergency shelter, it has not greatly affected the agency’s Community Support Partnership: Advocates are now providing legal aid, counseling, and safety planning services by phone and email.

For Transition House, the greater challenge lies not in adapting their services but in ensuring that survivors are aware of and can access them.

“The real danger is that people might have the misconception that they shouldn’t or can’t get help right now,” Gyorog says.

In addition to promoting their programs on social media, the shelter is partnering with the CPD to hang informational posters at essential businesses. It hopes to build relationships with local stores and someday train staff members to look out for signs of domestic violence. In the meantime, the shelter has also printed thousands of postcards to send alongside free home delivered meals.

In its push to publicize services, Gyorog says Transition House has a “real ally” in the CPD. Since mid-March, the CPD’s Domestic Violence Unit has circulated daily updates on legal, housing, and food-related resources for survivors. According to Warnick, the unit is operating by its typical standards, with officers continuing to respond in-person to all “active situations” of violence.

While she feels that domestic violence “probably wasn’t on anyone’s minds” at the start of the lockdown, she believes that the Cambridge city government is well-positioned to manage the crisis: Gyorog says it is the only municipality with a funded position for coordinating domestic violence prevention services.

Headed by Elizabeth M. Speakman, the Domestic and Gender-Based Violence Prevention Initiative has worked with Transition House and its peers to educate community members on domestic violence and develop protocols for housing and police authorities’ responses. The DGBVPI currently advises State Representative Marjorie C. Decker as part of a statewide pandemic task force focused on domestic violence. (At the task force’s urging, Governor Charlie D. Baker ’79 now shares domestic violence resources during press conferences.)

In spite of government attention to the matter, Speakman is less optimistic about the long-term wellbeing of local service providers. Although many large funders have continued to support agencies at this time, the state and federal grants that power providers are soon to expire. Speakman fears that the upcoming economic downturn could make the government tight on funds, forcing organizations to furlough staff.

While state agencies have assured Transition House of secure funding for the foreseeable future, the organization is “definitely worried about [its] financial health” in the years ahead, Gyorog says. It anticipates that individual donations, which make up 20 to 30 percent of its budget, will decline during the economic downturn. Moreover, half of the organization’s state grants come from federal streams authorized by the Violence Against Women Act, which expired in early 2019. While the shelter’s budget has not declined since then and Gyorog has received no indication of future cuts, she says she is “always nervous” about the fact that funding is “subject to the whim of the government.”

“If VAWA is not reauthorized, that will be a big problem for all victim service agencies across the country,” she added. “How big of a problem, I don’t know yet.”

For Emerge, an abusers’ education program involved with the Domestic and Gender Based Violence Prevention Initiative, the lockdown has already harmed the service’s bottom line.

Both Emerge and Transition House have acted as partners since their founding and often refer clients to one another. Their relationship is borne out of a mutual understanding that supporting survivors also entails working with abusers.

“We need to think about, OK, if we’re increasing services for survivors of domestic violence, what are we doing for people who use abusive behavior? How are we making sure that they have reasonable solutions for what they’re dealing with?” Gyorog says.

Although Emerge has seamlessly moved its group programming online, it is struggling to adapt to the stay-at-home order. According to its co-director, David C. Adams, as many clients have lost their jobs, the program has lost its primary source of revenue: client fees. On top of that, since the courts have closed, the program is rid of its main source of referrals. To hold onto its clientele and staff, the program has applied for a small business loan.

While Emerge receives a quarter of its income from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, it does not qualify for funding under VAWA even though certain streams, Adams highlights, aim to promote abusers’ accountability. He says it is rare for state and federal agencies to subsidize abuser intervention programs.

“At the very time that [Emerge] is most needed, it is the least available,” Adams says.

Speakman urges those who can to donate to local domestic violence organizations and circulate their resources on social media. She, Gyorog, and Adams also underscored the value of connecting with friends or family members who may be in unsafe relationships. The pandemic has made this a precarious time for survivors of domestic violence — as well as the agencies that serve them. Gyorog, like many of us, initially thought the lockdown would only last a few weeks.

“I don’t know how to predict where we’re going to end up in the future,” Gyorog says.

— Staff writer Saima S. Iqbal can be reached at

— Staff writer Josie F. Abugov can be reached at

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