Maximum Capacity

In 1992, Minnesota Women’s Press quoted then–Saint Paul Rep. Kathleen Vellenga saying she worried that rape crisis and other counseling services for victims were geared for white, middle-class, suburban women and did not always meet the needs of women of color.

Today, Minnesota is home to a number of nonprofit organizations that offer culturally specific approaches to combating gender-based violence. After a year and a half of the pandemic, those organizations look toward the needs of their clients in the midst of tremendous change.

Claudia Waring is the executive director of Asian Women United of Minnesota (AWUM). Waring says the coalition was founded in 1996 in part because mainstream organizations had a lack of shelter space and advocacy options for Asian women, in particular immigrants and refugees. Language and cultural barriers prevented some in those communities from getting the outreach and advocacy they needed, Waring says, even if that just meant a different kind of food.

“It is not bad food,” Waring says of what is offered in non–culturally specific shelters. “It is food to which people were not accustomed — foods that they did not prefer.” As part of their current programming, AWUM’s chef prepares stir-fried vegetables and rice, often seasoning dishes with fresh cilantro and lemongrass from the garden.

Waring says AWUM is working closely with other shelters, especially during the pandemic, through statewide coalition Violence Free Minnesota, as well as with the Minnesota Department of Health. “It sort of brought us all together,” Waring says of Covid-19. “That’s been a silver lining.”

One big issue the coalition has taken on is the lack of shelter space due to reduced occupancy limits because of pandemic safety precautions, she says. Some limits have increased since people have been vaccinated, but shelters still are not able to house people at full capacity.

Jennifer Davey, the director for Dabinoo’Igan, an emergency shelter run by the American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO), says the group had to move clients into a hotel after both staff and residents contracted Covid-19. “There was just no way to keep everybody absolutely safe,” Davey says.

Meanwhile, Covid-19 exacerbated issues for people already vulnerable.

“Covid further isolated people who were already isolated by their abusive partners, or by their circumstances,” Waring says. “On our crisis line, we had people calling from the closet, because their partner never left [home] anymore.”

On top of that, affordable housing remains a key need.

“Housing continues to be one of the biggest challenges for survivors of domestic violence,” says Rosario de la Torre, who co-directs family advocacy and community engagement at Esperanza United. “I do not think affordable housing exists in the state of Minnesota,” de la Torre says. The situation is even worse for undocumented women who have even more limited resources than other survivors of gender-based violence.

Comfort Dondo, founder and executive director of Phumulani, whose focus is on women and girls of African descent, says the end of Covid-19 protections, like the end of the extension on unemployment insurance and the moratorium on evictions, is putting an even tighter squeeze on their community.

“We are almost in a panic mode right now,” Dondo says. Phumalani has recently worked in partnership with a program called Project Hope, offering rental assistance through Minnesota Housing.

That work is just one part of a larger issue. “We are at maximum capacity,” Dondo said in an interview in late August, adding she is working unpaid for the third month. After working with the Department of Human Services to house women in hotels and motels in 2020, the organization has received less support in 2021. “For the last three or four months, I’ve been working unpaid because I’ve had to compensate elsewhere,” Dondo says.

Her organization is seeking capacity grants, she says, because they recognize they need to move beyond only crisis response.

“We are working towards moving forward to take women from that crisis space to [a sustainable space],” she says.

Resources for Sexual Assault Survivors

Claudia R. Waring, AWUM Executive Director:

Asian Women United of Minnesota (AWUM) is the only Minnesota organization whose sole focus is on providing emergency shelter and community-based advocacy to Asian victims of domestic violence. Minnesota’s Asian population is growing rapidly and is extremely diverse, which makes AWUM’s work both challenging and immensely rewarding. Our goal is to keep pace with the ever-evolving Asian population by hiring and training staff from the community we serve. This includes training people who are fluent in English and any number of Asian and North African languages on how to provide interpreter services to victims of domestic abuse.

AWUM has been fortunate to receive generous financial support from local foundations and individuals throughout Minnesota in recent years. During the pandemic, both organizational and individual donors stepped up and offered general operating funds, which is the most flexible and useful form of assistance during uncertain times. We have received an outpouring of in-kind, monetary, and emotional support in light of recent anti-Asian hate crimes, especially after the Atlanta massacre in March 2021.

We are greatly heartened by the concern exhibited by our sister organizations — Black, Indigenous, people of color, and mainstream — during the ongoing challenge of providing a safe space for Asian women in Minnesota.

Patti Tototzintle, President and Chief Executive Officer of Esperanza United:

In 1982, a small group of Latinas created the organization now known as Esperanza United, formerly Casa de Esperanza. They started with an emergency shelter in Saint Paul to help Latina survivors of domestic violence who were not getting the services they needed — whether because of language access issues, cultural differences, or anti-immigrant sentiment. In the nearly 40 years since then, we have grown into the largest national organization mobilizing Latina communities against gender-based violence. We continue to ground our work in community strength and wisdom as we serve Latinas locally and nationally.

Our work remains vital, as one in three women in the United States experiences domestic violence in their lifetime. This rate is approximately the same for women across most racial and socioeconomic groups. But just because the rates are the same, that doesn’t mean the solutions are equivalent. Esperanza United’s Latina Advocacy Framework provides the foundation on how best to support Latina survivors, families, and communities to gain greater safety, connectedness, and self-sufficiency.