How Harbor House is working to end domestic abuse during the pandemic

One in four women and one in 10 men in the United States live through intimate partner violence, whether physical or emotional. And while it could be predicted that those numbers would rise during shelter-in-place measures in the midst of a pandemic, many domestic-violence organizations saw their number of hotline calls fall by more than 50 percent.

“Here in Central Florida, we’re seeing the same number of cases as we saw before,” said Michelle Sperzel, CEO of Harbor House of Central Florida. “That in itself is scary because we know that domestic violence is increasing because of isolation. The reason we’re not hearing from people, we believe, and we’ve been told by survivors who’ve been coming in, is it’s been very difficult to physically get away. Or their abuser is home all the time, so their ability to reach out and call has been difficult.”

Harbor House provides emergency shelter, programming, court injunctions and a hotline for survivors of domestic abuse. They also work to prevent and eliminate domestic abuse through education and community partnerships.

They teach community members that, if you believe an acquaintance or loved one is in an abusive relationship, your first step is simply to talk.

“Just ask some questions,” Sperzel said. “Be empathetic, be open for that conversation. And be accepting of whatever it is that person says. Listen and let them know you’re here to support, and that you will help them if they want the help. It’s really going to be up to that survivor to take that first step.”

To facilitate those first steps, Harbor House has worked to open up new avenues to people seeking help this year. That includes texting capabilities for contacting Harbor House, in addition to call capabilities. A lot more people have been reaching out via social media as well, since it’s easy to set up a fake account and delete messages, Sperzel said.

And even though their 120-bed facility with 140-person capacity is operating at socially-distanced half-capacity during the pandemic, they’re still hard at work empowering the survivors and children who are there.

“If we’re really going to end domestic violence, or change domestic violence or change dynamics in families, we need to work with youth,” Sperzel said. “They’re the ones who are starting to form different relationships, and needing to talk about respect and healthy relationships and healthy boundaries.”

That’s why Harbor House has been working to grow their youth program, which was, until recently, dedicated to an onsite certified childcare program for infants and younger kids, as well as prevention programming in school. So they’ve been working to establish programs for tweens and teens onsite as well.

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If we’re really going to end domestic violence, or change domestic violence or change dynamics in families, we need to work with youth.

Michelle Sperzel, CEO of Harbor House of Central Florida

In November, Pepsi Stronger Together stepped in with the Orlando Magic and the Shaquille O’Neal Foundation to break ground on new and refurbished basketball courts at the Harbor House campus.

“Pepsi Stronger Together is helping us invest in the kids who are living on campus, whether they’re living here for a few days or for a year,” Sperzel said. “Having a physical and amazing basketball court being built is huge because you learn so much when you’re doing sports and you learn about winning, you learn about losing, you know what practice means, you know what it means to do a good job. And just being on a court, that’s freedom for a lot of kids.”

The chance to meet Shaquille O’Neal was powerful, too.

Sperzel said, “One of the teens came up to me afterwards and he said, ‘I can’t believe that he was here. You didn’t let me down.’ Harbor House didn’t let him down, Shaquille O’Neal didn’t let him down, and neither did Pepsi Stronger Together because he’s seeing that court being built. And we’re working with individuals – adults and kids – that have been let down so much. They’re watching someone follow through on their commitment, and that’s a game-changer.”

Ultimately, it’s this combination of domestic abuse resources and opportunities for healing on campus that help empower survivors and kids to become their own game-changers – to start their lives over and thrive. And, one day, to help break the cycle of abuse.

“We want survivors to know that they can have a safe life,” Sperzel said. “That there is a life on the other side of the situation they’re in right now. That there is a complete and totally different universe, and amazing possibilities."

Know the signs of domestic abuse

It’s more difficult than ever to spot signs of an unhealthy or abusive relationship, at a time when so many relationships have turned digital and so many social behaviors have shifted. But knowing and paying closer attention to the warning signs could help you support – or help save – someone you love.

Common signs of abuse:

  • Physical and emotional isolation
  • Social withdrawal
  • Canceling plans at the last minute
  • Someone who is more outgoing becoming introverted
  • Someone becoming suddenly private about their personal life

Know the signs. Start a conversation and offer support.

Learn more about the critical work of Harbor House of Central Florida and see how you can help end domestic abuse here.