HELENA — The pandemic has put a lot of things on hold, but not the work at the Friendship Center in Helena. The organization has continued to provide help and shelter to survivors of sexual and domestic violence throughout the pandemic, but it has not been easy.
“Initially, it was a slow uptick,” Friendship Center executive director Jenny Eck said. “It got really, really busy toward the end of the year.”
The Friendship Center serves Lewis and Clark, Jefferson and Broadwater counties, and Eck said both 2019 and 2020 are among their busiest years yet.
In 2020 alone, the Friendship Center served 568 people, and provided nearly 6,500 nights of safe shelter to survivors.
“We’re talking about people who are being hit, being potentially strangled, being slammed, having bones broken,” Eck said.
The pandemic has added an extra layer of complexity to already difficult situations. Eck described the lockdown, isolation and stress as a “perfect storm.”
“What we were seeing was not only people coming to us saying I’m being abused and this isolation is happening, but the extremity of that abuse is happening more quickly,” Eck said. “We definitely have seen a correlation from the pandemic.”
The Friendship Center usually can house about 30 people in their shelter, but COVID-19 forced them to reduce to half capacity. In turn, the need for alternative solutions—like buying people a bus ticket or gas to help them find safe shelter out of town—and off-site shelter in hotel rooms rose. For example, Eck said the need for hotel rooms was three times higher in 2020 than the year before.
“Our shelter budget, our transportation budget, our budget for providing people with safe phones and that kind of thing—all of them were through the roof,” Eck said. “We blew through all of those budgets.”
In all, Eck said client service expenses doubled in 2020, compared to 2019. There were other expenses too, like retrofitting the building to protect people from COVID-19 and purchasing personal protective equipment. CARES Act money and a PPP loan helped the Friendship Center get through 2020. Eck said they have applied for more funding, but right now, it’s uncertain.
“We now have to deal with the fact that funding has dried up, yet the need is still there,” Eck said.
As long as the need is there, Eck said the Friendship Center will be too. They are still open and serving people during the pandemic, and their 24-hour hotline number is 406-442-6800.
“We are never going to say ‘if you are in danger, we’re not going to help you,’” Eck said. “We are going to figure out a way to help you, whatever it is.”