ST. GEORGE — For many, finding a place to live in Southern Utah has been hard enough in the current housing market.

Imagine being a survivor of domestic violence and having to start from scratch.

“You know how expensive it is to try to get housing in a state where you’ve had to leave everything?” asked Susan Ertyl, president of the nonprofit Dove Center. “It’s not like you’re going to have first and last month’s (rent) and a security deposit.”

The Dove Center, which supplies shelter, counseling and advocacy throughout Washington and Kane counties, has been providing what it calls transitional housing for women, men and children who have been victimized by domestic violence. But Ertyl says the center has run out of this space.

“We try to provide that bridge to independence,” Ertyl said. “Earlier in the year, we just didn’t have enough space for people, and we had to refer 45 people to other agencies that could help them out because we just couldn’t serve them. We don’t want to be in that position anymore. We want to be able to say, ‘Come on in, we have space for you.’”

Ertyl noted for those they had to turn away, they made sure to get them help.

The transitional housing is separate from the center’s emergency shelter, which handles people in immediate crisis. She said there is still room in the emergency shelter.

The problem of overcrowding is with the transitional housing the Dove Center provides for those who feel safe enough to be out of the emergency shelter but still need help getting back on their feet as they start over.   

The jungle gym outside the Dove Center, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Markee Pickett, St. George News

“When someone is ready for transitional housing, they’re not in crisis anymore,” Ertyl said. “They have resolved a court case, have worked through the local authorities, and they feel safe enough to be out on their own and to have some financial support and job training and whatever Dove can offer them to reenter society as a newly liberated single person or family.”

Those needing transitional housing tend to stay there from six months to two years. Stays in the emergency shelter, which is communal and not meant for long-term residency, lasts 30 to 90 days.

Right now, Dove has three transitional units at one facility and one at another. The nonprofit is looking to buy an existing property that could provide four additional units, doubling their capacity. 

“That’s our biggest need,” Ertyl said. 

Ertyl and other Dove officials have been making their rounds of local city council and county commission meetings, asking for grants and additional funding to help the group purchase additional housing. It’s not the first time Dove has sought such governmental aid, with Washington City providing $150,000 toward the completion of the initial Dove shelter and additional funds provided for a 2020 renovation.

Ertyl says Dove has also had generous support from local private companies as sponsors. 

But she admits there is one area of financial backing she needs to help increase the amount of housing for domestic violence victims trying to get back on their feet: The general public.

“We serve a huge area, so I don’t know what an individual city can do beyond what they’ve already done. We have good corporate sponsors and partners, but that can only go so far as well,” Ertyl said. “Our big thing right now is we’re in a capital campaign to purchase this new property people are going to start seeing the center asking for more money, and they’ll be like, ‘Well, why do you need more money?’ This is what we’re doing.”

Members of the public interested in donating to the Dove Center can do so at this link.

According to statistics provided by the Dove Center, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men in Utah will be victims of domestic violence or intimate partner violence.

Ertyl said the public’s attention turns to domestic violence and its victims in times when cases come to light like that of Gabby Petito, a Florida woman who was killed by her fiance after they were seen traveling through Southern Utah.

“It seems to peak our awareness for a little bit. And then something else comes up to take our attention away,” Ertyl said. “Dove never takes its attention away from domestic violence and intimate partner violence. We know it’s a constant problem, and we know that we are keeping people alive, that we are getting them out of those situations and giving them the resources and the language to empower themselves to move beyond those violent situations.

Is domestic violence on the rise?

With the growing need for more space, the question becomes whether domestic violence has been increasing.

Stock photo | Photo by innovatedcaptures/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

According to statistics by the Utah Department of Health and Human Services, that was the case during the pandemic when victims of domestic violence were forced to spend more time at home with those who attacked them.

But Ertyl said they have seen no indications that domestic violence incidents are rising locally, but she said local law enforcement is getting better at dealing with it. 

One thing credited for that is a bill passed and signed in the last Utah Legislature that was pushed by Petito’s family that requires all law enforcement in the state to use what is called a lethality assessment program when dealing with domestic violence situations. 

Ertyl said the Dove Center had already been working with St. George Police, the Washington County Sheriff and other local law enforcement to implement the assessment program for months before the Utah legislature made it mandatory. 

The assessment that is used in any domestic violence situation law enforcement responds to consists of 13 questions that include such queries as whether their partner has threatened them with a weapon, tried to physically harm them, controlled their daily activities, or spied on them and/or left threatening messages. 

If the answer is yes to at least four questions, the case is referred to a local center dealing with domestic violence.

Ertyl says since the assessment program was implemented locally, the Dove Center has seen a 55% increase in referrals from law enforcement.

“If you answer yes to four of the questions, it’s pretty evident that you are in danger. What the police department can do at that point is loop the Dove Center into that conversation and get that person into shelter, into a situation where they are out of harm’s way,” Ertyl said. “What it’s done is it has given police officers and victims the language to kind of go, ‘OK, so this is domestic violence.’ It’s not necessarily that it’s all of a sudden we’re seeing a huge uptick in domestic violence.”

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