Franklin County's domestic-violence shelter, LSS Choices for Victims of Domestic Violence, has 120 beds. On April 28, 90 people were staying there; by May 8, that number had increased to 97.

Those figures are significant because Sue Villilo, assistant vice president of community-based services for Lutheran Social Services, which runs the shelter, said before the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, Choices usually was at capacity.

But the health crisis has made seeking help from the shelter more difficult, Villilo said, as families grapple with more time spent with abusers at home and organizations strive to continue offering services while adhering to social-distancing guidelines.

For friends and family members concerned about loved ones during the pandemic quarantine, Villilo said, being a steady presence in a person's life is vital.

"It's so important right now just to keep the line of communication open," she said.

Villilo said the shelter, which has an undisclosed address for safety reasons, has been receiving fewer calls than normal on its 24-hour crisis hotline from people who need help. The hotline number is 614-224-4663, and Choices encourages anyone to call, including if a person suspects or knows of someone who is abused.

"It's harder to make that phone call to get the help that you need," she said, when people who need help constantly are with a potential abuser.

Another explanation for the lower volume is they might be less likely to want to move into a congregate-living situation during a pandemic, Villilo said.

Overall, hotline calls have increased a bit, but most have been from police agencies, she said. People who need help tend to wait until police are involved or when abuse becomes severe, she said, and the number of calls from those in need has decreased.

At the same time, the number of countywide reports involving domestic complaints has increased as most central Ohioans have been staying at home during the pandemic.

The Franklin County Sheriff's Office recorded 165 calls from March 24 to April 24, compared to 149 calls during the same period last year.

Although Franklin County has several homeless shelters, Choices is the only shelter for domestic violence, Villilo said. It is for any adults and family members who are fleeing intimate-partner violence, she said.

People who go to the shelter average about 50 days there, but the length of stay is based on a family's needs, Villilo said. Some families might have friends and family to live with, whereas others might need to find employment and their own housing.

Pandemic complications

Choices moved into a new building about a year ago, and its ample space makes social-distancing practices fairly simple, Villilo said. The shelter has limited group activities to six people, and it has offered arts and dance classes and outside play time to keep people active, she said.

Staff members also have removed tables and chairs from the dining room and installed hand-sanitizing stations in the building, Villilo said.

Masks are mandatory for staff members, and the residents are encouraged to wear masks, said Jennifer Hamilton, director of communications at Lutheran Social Services.

But Villilo said explaining social distancing to children can be difficult, as can trying to discuss the pandemic with those from other cultures or whose English is limited.

Facial expressions are key for people who speak limited English, and wearing a mask means faces are less visible and words are more diffiult to hear, said Shantha Balaswamy, board president and client services chairperson for ASHA-Ray of Hope, a nonprofit organization at 4900 Reed Road in Columbus.

Founded in 2003, ASHA-Ray of Hope started serving immigrants from South Asian countries before branching out to serve clients from the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Africa, Balaswamy said. The organization primarily helps immigrants and refugees connect with resources needed after trauma, including housing, legal services, counseling, transportation and food.

Transitional housing is a critical service for our clients once they leave their home," Balaswamy said. "We partner with Choices to ensure a safe and emotionally supportive environment for clients. Choices has been very accommodating of the cultural needs of our clients while they are at the shelter. We are dependent on them for this critical service for victims."

Also, although ASHA-Ray of Hope has an office large enough to accommodate social-distancing practices, the pandemic has made logistics challenging.

Staff members cannot go inside homes, Balaswamy said, and they have to console domestic-violence victims from a distance.

Women often do not want to leave their homes because of the pandemic, she said.

Locating movers or locksmiths also is difficult, she said.

Typically, staff members might send a ride-share vehicle to pick up a woman while her husband is away at work, or they might meet a person who needs help in grocery stores or other public locations. Now staff members might need to go to a neighborhood and meeting during a walk to discuss options, Balaswamy said.

In one recent case, a client with a child did not want to go to a shelter because of the pandemic, Balaswamy said, and she ended up moving into a friend's house. Staff members from ASHA-Ray of Hope talked to the woman on her friend's front porch, Balaswamy said.

Statewide challenges

Domestic-violence programs across the state have faced similar challenges.

Jo Simonsen, linking-systems project manager and family-systems-advocacy director for the Ohio Domestic Violence Network, said she recently conducted a survey of domestic-violence programs in Ohio to learn about challenges they are facing. She received responses from 56 programs, she said.

Like LSS Choices, some programs are seeing a decrease in shelter intake and calls, whereas some other programs are seeing an increase, Simonsen said. Survey responders also reported that calls they receive report more violence from abusers than typical.

One responder reported that calls were coming in later at night, she said, perhaps indicating they were made while abusers were sleeping.

Isolation is one tactic abusers use to control victims of domestic violence, Simonsen said.

When they are confined to their homes, as many are during the pandemic, their supporters -- such as family members, friends or coworkers -- are missing cues that they need help, she said.

"This is isolation on steroids," Simonsen said.

All programs are bracing for an increase in requests for service as the state reopens and more people return to work, Simonsen said.

In the meantime, shelters have been finding ways to limit coronavirus outbreaks, such as those being reported in prisons and nursing homes across the state, she said. As a result, programs often have used hotels as a safe space for families, she said.

Virtual technology, such as the Zoom videoconferencing platform, also has been used to conduct support groups, Simonsen said. Communication also might be more common via text than over the phone, she said.

"It's difficult, and it is a change," Simonsen said. "(But) help is still available."

Simonsen said anyone may contact the Ohio Domestic Violence Network for help in finding a local program. The network's phone number is 614-781-9651, and its website is odvn.org.

How friends, family can help

Friends and family members can provide support to loved ones they believe might be in danger, according to Hamilton and Villilo.

Providing advice is not necessary, Villilo said. Rather, maintaining a steady level of communication with the person is key so it is clear the friend or family member is a safe person to reach out to, she said.

Taking a person at her or his word also is important, Hamilton said.

Lutheran Social Services workers always tell people to believe when people say they are being abused, she said.

"Encourage them to call the hotline to speak with a trained professional on steps to take and how to devise a safety plan," Hamilton said.

If you are experiencing domestic violence or know someone who is, call Choices' 24-hour crisis line at 614-224-4463.

ssole@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekSarah