Background: Domestic violence (DV) shelters represent a foundational service intervention that fulfills an essential DV survivor's need - safe, emergency housing. Shelters typically seek to create safe and healthy environments for survivors, and the COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented changes to those standard operating procedures. The intersections of increased risk for communally housing survivors and decreased economic options for survivors exiting shelters created unparalleled challenges for these programs. This study sought to understand how shelters were responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, given these constraints. The study targeted DV shelter staff and leadership to know how they enacted policies and decisions throughout the beginning stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Methods: This study relied on a modified snowball survey design to gather DV shelter staff responses. Researchers initially launched an online Qualtrics survey to state domestic violence coalitions to distribute to their state member programs in June 2020. After four weeks, the researchers reviewed survey data and targeted states with less than ten responses for direct shelter recruitment to increase geographic diversity and saturation through August 2020. Researchers conducted univariate and bivariate analyses to distinguish patterns.
Results: Survey respondents included 463 DV agency staff, representing advocates and program leadership, from 48 states. Thirty-six percent (36.30%) of leadership respondents reported that they had employees who tested positive for COVID-19 or were exhibiting symptoms, representing a higher number than programs with positive survivor cases (33.61%), as of August 2020. Shelter advocates relayed that their most challenging tasks were managing the anxiety of survivors in the shelter and enforcing movement restriction policies inside and outside the shelter building.
Advocates reported their hours were as likely to be increased as they were to decrease, and a majority (47%) related that their hours were not affected. Forty-three percent (43%) of advocates were worried that their work schedule would be affected by the pandemic, with 11.76% being "very worried". Eighty-one (60%) leadership respondents indicated that some of their employees took sick leave due to fear of contracting COVID-19.
Shelter advocates answered questions about their satisfaction level of leadership's overall decision making about the pandemic-related shelter response, enacted policies for survivors, and enacted policies for staff. Overwhelmingly shelter workers responded that they were "extremely satisfied" (42.96%) or "somewhat satisfied" (30.37%) with the leadership's overall decision-making about the pandemic-related shelter response. A disproportionate number of advocates who were "extremely dissatisfied" (72.73%) with leadership's decision-making were from rural programs. Qualitative thematic analysis of open-ended questions revealed that balancing residents' choices and self-determination with health and safety was the most challenging thing during the pandemic.
Conclusion and Implications: Throughout this time, many innovative practices emerged to ease the burden on survivors and staff by expanding technology use and non-residential services. Future recommendations include increased support for rural programs, mental health support for agency staff, access to hazard pay and paid sick leave for staff, and increased transparency of leadership's decision-making for staff and residents.