MY VOICE: We should not have to choose
A few months ago I became aware of the county’s plan to demolish the Shelter From the Storm building and erect a courthouse on its site. Since then, I have discussed this issue with many people from diverse backgrounds, and I’ve been struck with two recurring themes.
The first presents itself when the person I’m talking with — usually a woman, but not always — takes a half step forward and lowers her voice, “I’m a survivor,” she says, or “I grew up in an abusive home.” I’ve heard, “I’m alive today because of the shelter,” and “My children still suffer the scars.”
I’ve heard such comments from people I’ve known for years and from complete strangers. Our eyes meet and hold steady for a moment as we recognize how deep and lasting are the affects of domestic violence and sexual assault.
The second theme is the exuberant bubbling up of innovative solutions to the conflict. The ideas range from alternate sites for either the shelter or the courthouse to ways around parking requirements and elevator maintenance costs. There is not enough space to elaborate here, but I have been convinced: We do not have to choose between building a new courthouse and maintaining essential shelter services.
In an effort to untangle the conflict between SFS and Union County, we would do well to recall: The primary function of government is to protect citizens from crimes against themselves or their property. This would include protecting women from the crime most often committed against them: sexual assault and domestic violence.
For the last 20 years, Union County met this obligation by working with Shelter From the Storm. It was a shrewd strategy because a nonprofit can access grant funds unavailable to the county.
When I reviewed the public records pertaining to the new courthouse, I saw no acknowledgement of the county’s responsibility to protect women from violent crime.
I saw no discussion of the effect the county’s plan would have on the shelter’s ability to continue to provide the essential services to women threatened by violence.
I saw no estimates of the costs of moving the shelter or of remodeling a building to meet the shelter’s security needs. The county’s plan to move the shelter twice appears particularly heedless of the critical nature of the shelter’s mission.
The minutes of the March 4 commissioners’ meeting show that all who spoke in favor of a single-story courthouse also spoke appreciatively of the shelter services. Promises to help relocate the shelter were made, but to my knowledge there has been no follow-through.
Thus, I understand the lawsuit filed by Shelter From the Storm against Union County to be, not an act of ingratitude, but an unfortunate, last resort attempt to prevent the disruption of services to a fragile population. Continuing down this litigious path, however, is corrosive to our community bonds and it is wasteful of taxpayer dollars.
I urge the commissioners to meet with all stakeholders, including shelter representatives, to revisit this issue. Place Union County’s obligation to protect women from violence on the table as an abiding concern. If the final plan impedes the shelter’s ability to continue its current level of services, a complementary plan to remedy the harm to the shelter should be made.
After months of grappling with this issue, reading public documents, surveying the county campus, visiting the shelter and the Joseph Building and talking with numerous people, I know there is the interest, will, creativity and expertise in the community to find a win-win resolution to the conflict.
We need a new courthouse and a functional women’s shelter. If we could recognize our common cause and commit to work together in good faith, with open hearts and minds and a willingness to compromise, we would not have to choose.