When someone in Skagway is the victim of domestic or sexual violence, the closest emergency shelter is a five-hour ferry ride or hour-long flight away. If there isn’t transportation out of town until the next day or later in the week, where do you go? A Juneau organization is working with the Skagway clinic to set up a network of safe homes to temporarily shelter domestic violence victims. A meeting is set for Thursday to recruit safe home providers.
“I don’t think it’s something that we talk about a lot in Skagway, domestic violence,” said John Hischer. But it’s something he sees on a regular basis.
Hischer is a behavioral health clinician at the Dahl Memorial Clinic in Skagway. When a domestic violence survivor comes to the clinic, they’re referred to him. Hischer says this summer, he’s seen a spike in domestic violence reports. He says there were five or six in about a two-month period.
“I’ve never, in my nine years, seen that many in one time,” Hischer said.
This is one reason a non-profit out of Juneau is stepping up its efforts in Skagway. AWARE is an domestic violence intervention and prevention organization. It has an emergency shelter in Juneau and also serves several smaller communities, including Skagway.
“The shame and secrecy and dynamic of relationships in smaller communities makes it really difficult for victims to reach out,” said Britta Tonnessen. She is in charge of AWARE’s rural outreach.
“Also I think people’s lives are so intertwined in their roles they play in the communities that any adjustment makes a big difference, especially in a small community,” Tonnessen said. “And it’s hard to leave when your whole community might know what’s going on. It just makes it more hard to seek help.”
Rural communities have dealt with this obstacle in different ways. In Haines, a pair of residents recently opened a faith-based local safe house.
Tonnessen hopes establishing temporary safe homes in Skagway takes away one of the challenges victims face in getting help. The safe home providers are regular people who volunteer to open their houses to domestic violence survivors, usual for one to three nights.
“Sometimes people who are fleeing domestic violence can’t get out right away, can’t get to AWARE right away,” Tonnessen said. “So they need someone who they can stay with that can help until they can get on a ferry or a plane.”
Tonnessen is holding a meeting at the Dahl Memorial Clinic on Thursday to talk with people who might be interested in providing a safe home. She says you don’t have to come to the meeting ready to make a commitment. It’s simply to explain the details.
“So the safe home providers are trained similar to how advocates would be,” Tonnessen said. “They have a handle on the dynamic of domestic violence, they understand the roots of sexual violence and the effects of trauma on the brain and on children. So they’re trained like an advocate would but they’re different in that they welcome survivors into their home and take care of them for a little while.”
The safe home providers aren’t alone when they help a survivor. Tonnessen says they’ll have the support of AWARE, the local police, and the clinic.
Hischer says he knows volunteering for this service is a ‘big ask.’ But he hopes the community shows its interest and displays to people in abusive relationships that they have somewhere to go.
“If you are in a relationship that’s violent or abusive, you have options,” Hischer said. “You can get out of the relationship and there’s a lot of people who will support you in doing that.”
Hischer is also hopeful that this could be the beginning of a larger community conversation.
The safe home meeting is Thursday at 6 p.m. in the clinic.