We’ve also been seeing an increase in first-time callers, not because they’re experiencing abuse for the first time, but because Illinois has streamlined some support efforts and has a statewide helpline. So if someone calls the statewide helpline but they live in our area, they can connect them to us. In some ways, the capacity of systems including the legal or the medical system is reduced because all of our focus is on COVID-19. But in others, the whole state, city, and area have come together to respond more efficiently.
How has your team at Apna Ghar adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic?
We’re providing the services that we were already offering, but in a different way, and then adding on new services around addressing these health concerns and the anxiety that this new situation causes.
We’ve cleared out the shelter, which was at capacity, and moved some survivors to transitional housing apartments. We were also able to work with the city, the state, and our own resources to provide hotel and Airbnb options for other survivors. In the beginning, we funded this kind of lodging ourselves because we had to react so quickly, but now we’ve been able to utilize this great new partnership. We also reached out to our board members and donors to put together hotel suite options with things like kitchenettes so no services are interrupted.
We’ve also just been a lot more proactive in making sure the people that we serve know we’re available, even for things that they may not have typically relied on us for before. For example, some of the people that we serve now need to focus on childcare and have lost employment because they’re their child’s sole caretaker. So we’re making sure that they have groceries and household items. We’ve made deliveries of masks, hand sanitizer, and are trying to make sure everybody has internet access and all of that.
Staffers are still working 24/7 to answer calls on our crisis line. If someone needs a video teletherapy session, we can provide that as well. We’ve also stepped up our advocacy to make sure that policymakers, legislators, and people in various systems including health care are aware of the needs of the survivors that we serve and then are able to respond effectively.
Has your work gone completely remote?
Pretty much. The shelter is closed right now. We’re getting ready to reopen at a reduced capacity soon, but we have to put a lot of safety protocols in place. The shelter has private bedrooms, but some spaces like our kitchen and some of the bathrooms are shared.
Our 30 staffers are working remotely, but none of the services are on pause. Even in the best of times, gender-based violence is a huge issue of pandemic proportions. With this public health crisis and the need to stay at home, it has just exacerbated all the things people were already experiencing.
What is the biggest challenge of taking your work virtual?
As people who are used to working closely with the people we serve, working from home is very, very challenging. It’s so important for us and for the people that we serve to be literally close to them. The body language, the eye contact, all of those things are crucial to being able to express that we’re here for you, and we are here for the long haul.
We also really pride ourselves on the fact that, normally, people can walk right into Apna Ghar and seek service. We realize that sometimes people just leave; there’s not enough time to make a phone call and schedule an appointment. Or sometimes someone happens to be in the neighborhood, and someone had told them about Apna Ghar a while ago and they think, Let me just go see what they have to offer. We’re not really able to provide that right now. Even though we’re still available 24/7, people can’t just walk in. They have to figure out, “Okay, what’s their number, how do I get access to a phone, how do I text them?” That’s challenging.