Content Warning: This story includes depictions of domestic abuse and gender-based violence that may not be suitable for all audiences.
By Merry Lee Olson, CEO YWCA Bilings
YWCA Billings’ domestic and sexual violence services are the only ones addressing needs for survivors and victims of violence in a vast region of Montana that includes Big Horn County — home of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne American Indian Reservations, which are at the epicenter of the country’s epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
One of those women was Julia, a Native American Big Horn County resident, who came to YWCA Billings’ shelter for services over several years. She rarely stayed long because to her, the urban environment so far from home was intolerable. In the end, it cost her life. Julia was beaten to death by her partner and left in a ditch by a rural stretch of highway. Had more robust services been available closer to her home, she might have escaped. She is just one of the many victims who could have experienced different outcomes if in our protection.
With Julia’s loss, YWCA Billings realized we needed to offer services closer to the reservations where we know there may be countless other women whose lives depend on us and how we show up for them. For 22 years, we have provided emergency shelter, transitional services, and affordable housing on our Billings campus. The Gateway Shelter is the only one of its kind in the region and helps survivors escape domestic violence by providing an average of 9,000 shelter nights per year.
In 2014, YWCA Billings implemented services in Big Horn County to support survivors whose cases fell outside the jurisdiction of the FBI or who chose not to report to law enforcement and had nowhere to turn for help. Prior to offering these services, survivors reached out to YWCA Billings but were unable to access services other than our 24-hour helplines because they had no way to travel the 46 miles to Billings. Now, our Big Horn County facility is staffed by a Rural Services Coordinator and Advocate who are both part of the Native American community. We are grateful for the Federal Rural VAWA funding, which helped make this possible and allows YWCA Billings to maintain a staff of qualified advocates, case managers, and an attorney who all serve both Billings and Big Horn County and work intensively to save and change the lives of survivors.
Escaping violence requires extensive support to overcome barriers and gain the skills, knowledge, and empowerment to escape the cycle of relationship violence. The trauma of being in an abusive relationship, gaining the strength and courage to leave, and rebuilding their lives takes a toll on domestic violence survivors. Sexual assault victims experience distress that impacts all areas of their lives. While they do not always have to endure escaping an abusive relationship, they also need significant support to cope with their victimization.
Below are relevant facts to understand the unique challenges we face in Billings:
- Domestic violence and poverty are the leading causes of homelessness in our region of Montana. Women who come to YWCA Billings are usually victims of both.
- 50% – 80% of the people YWCA Billings serves at the Gateway Emergency Shelter and 95% of those served through YWCA’s office in Big Horn County are American Indian.
- The Billings shelter has always been at full occupancy, however the COVID-19 pandemic caused domestic violence to spike by 40% with no sign of subsiding.
- YWCA opened the Big Horn County shelter in 2014 and is now building a second shelter on the Billings campus to meet the needs of Montana victims, including those from our Native American reservations.
If you are interested in learning more about the work of YWCA Billings and how you can support our work to violence against women, check out our website for opportunities to donate and support our work.
YWCAs like those in Billings, Montana see first-hand the difference that federal funding makes in communities. Federal grants and funding – ranging from housing, childcare, and domestic violence – are a large area of financial support for YWCA programs and services across the country and impact the health, safety, and economic well-being of YWCA clients. Survivors throughout Montana and across the country also require unique services, such as emergency shelter and transitional housing, supported by the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA). That’s why we’re calling on Congress to reauthorize VAWA and FVPSA, and to meet or exceed YWCA’s asks for the FY22 Appropriations process. As the largest network of domestic violence and sexual assault service providers, YWCAs are on the front lines of maintaining services for survivors, and we’re calling on Congress to immediately reauthorize and pass these critical bills.