By Ivey Schofield
Vickie Pait is on the desperate hunt for a building. As the executive director of a nonprofit in rural, southeastern North Carolina, she’s asked for help from church members, former benefactors, county government officials and anyone who will listen.
But Pait has to be careful about her search. The building will be for survivors of domestic violence, and its secret location is integral to maintaining the safety of its inhabitants.
Around a year ago, Pait of Families First, the only sexual and domestic violence coalition in Columbus and Bladen counties, found out that the building she had been leasing for almost three decades would soon be demolished. Now, she’s trying to find a new place to house survivors – which, in some cases, can make the difference between life and death.
“I’m going day to day while in the process of planning for whatever is next,” Pait said. “It consumes me, this idea.”
Across the United States, nearly 20 people every minute are abused by an intimate partner, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Across North Carolina, 61 people died due to domestic violence in 2020, according to the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which provides programs to assist survivors and coordinates community response across the state. The number rose to 63 in 2021, and 16 have died so far this year.
Of those recorded homicides, one was in Robeson County, two were in Scotland County, and two were in Columbus County, according to the coalition. Locally, the most recent death was in February – a 28-year-old from Whiteville.
How shelters save lives
Shelters can help lower the risk of homicide, acting as a “pressure valve,” said Carianne Fisher, executive director of the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
A survivor can go to a shelter for a few nights or weeks, waiting for the potentially dangerous situation to deescalate. A survivor can also stay at a shelter while looking for safe housing.
While at a shelter, a survivor can learn about local resources, including substance misuse treatment, mental health services, transportation options and school transfer assistance for their children. Staying at a safe place can also help a survivor determine their next steps.
“It’s an incredibly important need for Columbus and Bladen counties,” Fisher said.
Without the shelter in Columbus County, the closest safe housing for survivors would be about an hour away, according to Pait.
Approximately 55% of people in Columbus County think that community members lack the funds for adequate transportation, according to a 2019 health assessment conducted by the local health department. The median household income in Columbus County is $37,600, compared to $60,000 statewide.
Even if a survivor did have the means to drive an hour away, Pait said that shelter is often full.
The Columbus County shelter was also full for a third of the year in 2021, according to Pait.
‘We’re not going anywhere’
Since 1997, Families First has sheltered more than 5,000 men, women and children – averaging eight people per day, according to Pait.
“The shelter is the cornerstone of our program,” Pait said. “That’s our number one defense when it comes to protecting survivors of domestic violence.”
With her next building, Pait wants more space for more bedrooms and bathrooms. She also wants to expand her pet program, designating certain rooms for people with cats or dogs and attaching dog runs to those rooms.
“Frequently that’s a reason people don’t leave a domestic violence situation,” Pait said, explaining that many survivors don’t want to leave their pets behind.
Pait hopes to find someone willing to donate a building with enough land in an area with a high law enforcement presence.
“We don’t want to have to worry about the next lease being renewed,” Pait said. “That way we can also have equity in something.”
Approximately 18% of housing units in Columbus County are vacant, according to 2020 U.S. Census results.
Pait is also looking for anyone interested in giving their time. She is working with a consultant but also needs a committee of people with architecture experience, construction experience or passion for the project.
“I’ve never had to do anything like this before. I have a social work background, not a background in whatever this is,” Pait said. “Anybody that’s got any suggestions, those are welcome.”
Families First will soon start a capital campaign to help raise money for a new shelter. Pait hopes people will donate.
“We’ve been here for almost 28 years. We’re not going anywhere,” Pait said. “We’re just now getting into the planning process of all of this.”
However, Pait doesn’t know when she’ll have to move the shelter.
The owner of the current building said they would start considering demolition in six to nine months.
Despite the uncertain plan, Pait wants local survivors to know that they are her top priority.
“We will do whatever means are necessary to ensure they have a place to go that’s safe for them,” she said. “We’re not going to leave anybody out in the cold.”