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More than a shelter: Tundra Women's Coalition weighs in on its lesser known programs and community responses to violence

Gabby Salgado
Eileen Arnold is the executive director of Tundra Women's Coalition

Advocates say that new victim’s services programs are popping up throughout the region, including a new women’s shelter in Hooper Bay. In Bethel, the Tundra Women’s Coalition (TWC) provides a shelter for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault throughout the region, but they offer some lesser known programs as well.

KYUK’s Francisco Martínezcuello checked in with TWC Executive Director Eileen Arnold to find out more.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Martínezcuello: So what kinds of programs is TWC supporting in the community? 

Arnold: I think everybody sort of knows that TWC has a shelter. That's what we're most known for and that makes sense. It's the largest program serving the most people with the most money and the most staff. But we have a lot of other non-residential programs that I think can be very helpful to people that people don't necessarily know about.

I think the most important program that can help people who don't need shelter, but are struggling with an unhealthy or violent relationship, is our Legal Services Program. That's a lot of civil legal advocacy, things like protective orders. It includes things like divorce and custody proceedings, and then also just assistance with legal matters. Like, we can attend court for people, keep them updated on their court process. We also can track if somebody who commits harm, if they go to jail, we can help a person track when they're going to come out through the vine link system. If you're the victim of a violent crime, any violent crime, it doesn't have to be because of domestic violence. But any sort of person who's a victim of violent crime is able to apply for assistance through the Violent Crimes Compensation Board. So all of those types of resources that exist for victims that are outside of shelter we can help people with, and I'm not sure that people always know that about our agency.

Martínezcuello: Any other programs you offer? 

Arnold: I want to make sure people know about our thrift store. I think that that's another great thing for anybody in the community. This is a high cost area, and it's a high poverty area as well. The thrift store exists because the community is really generous to us, and also I think really wants a thrift store. There have been times, you know, I've worked at TWC for 13 years. There have been times where we've really tried to shut down donations and, like, put up a big sign saying 'please no donations,' and people will leave them anyway. So I've sort of just resigned myself to, like, TWC is going to have a thrift store unless somebody wants to open a thrift store business out there.

Martínezcuello: And how long have you been working here? How long have you been doing this? What brought you to this type of work?

Arnold: I've been working at TWC for 13 years, I believe in September 2009 is when I started.
What brought me to Bethel was I was a Jesuit Volunteer. And that is, you know, you do social justice work in a volunteer capacity. And, you know, I believe in justice. I believe that things are not fair out there for people. And so I believe in doing work to try to make things as fair as possible, and try to get people access to services that they might need.

Martínezcuello: And so you, you come and talk to KYUK once a month. Can you talk to me about how that started?

Arnold: Sure. Another non-residential program that we have is what we call outreach. Because the thing about domestic and sexual violence, the thing about interpersonal violence is that people are very uncomfortable talking about it. We're not really encouraged and we're not really shown how to do that. Sometimes in our families, certainly in schools, in our culture in general, there's a lot of myths and misunderstandings that really make it possible for people to stay in violent relationships a very long time. So outreach is supposed to break down some of those myths and misunderstandings, and also spread the word about the different services that we have. So when we go to KYUK once a month for, we call it the Peacetalk monthly radio show, that's just part of letting people know what we have. And also using every opportunity we can to highlight new programs, opportunities for people, but then also talk about things like, you know, healthy and unhealthy communication and red flags of violent relationships. You know, how to set healthy boundaries in a relationship. Our outreach person has a number of other presentations that, you know, we can do for different agencies or different communities throughout the community of Bethel, and then also the region. We have the funding for village travel, and if we're invited, and that's just important for letting people understand what's behind the tip of the iceberg of violence that we see, because that's a very complicated thing. A lot of people think that, you know, alcohol causes violence and sexual assault; that's not anywhere near the truth. And that's what our outreach program does is tries to break down in a respectful way, in a complex way, because it's not a simple thing.

Martínezcuello: What are the causes behind the violence that we see, and what is your reach, like you talked about, you know, some of the villages, how far out does it go out? 

Arnold: Alright, so Tundra Women's Coalition, we provide services for everybody in Bethel, but then also the Y-K Delta region. There are other shelters, though. There's the Emmonak Women's Dhelter on the Yukon, and then also Bay Haven Shelter in Hooper Bay. They're brand new; they opened during the pandemic.
And there's also starting to emerge, which is really excellent, a lot of tribal victim services programs. That's a big investment from the Office of Victims of Crime. And so there's a lot of new victim services programs popping up throughout our region that don't necessarily have shelters, but are starting to have victim advocates so that they can help people with non-residential services: things like protective orders, things like getting them connected to different resources once they've been a victim of crime. So, you know, we're a regional provider, but we try to partner as well as we can with the other victim services in the region. Because, you know, in the middle of the night, there's nothing we can do if somebody's calling from a remote village and the planes aren't flying. And oftentimes, because of weather hold, the planes aren't flying either. So it's great to have these new local victim services popping up because in the middle of the night, there's not much that we can do besides safety planning until the planes are flying again. That's very disconcerting.

MaryCait Dolan
In addition to the shelter, TWC also operates Bethel's only thrift store.

Martínezcuello: How did the pandemic impact your shelter and the services you were able to offer? And can you talk to me about how the pandemic has impacted folks coming in using utilizing these resources? Did you see an uptick or just general patterns or observations that you can share? 

Arnold: Well, the first thing I'd say about the pandemic, is that Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation (YKHC) was such a great partner to us. They were so helpful in prioritizing us as frontline workers because we never closed our shelter, we never worked from home. We can't, you know; people live here. And even for the programs where people are not living here, the non-residential programs, we do a lot of crisis response. So there's, there's no way to do that remotely.

Every time that we had somebody who was positive they quarantined them outside of our shelter; it was just so handy. And they were able to do that for a good, like, 18 months, two years, something like that. And then also prioritized our staff getting the vaccines pretty early on as well. So we just had a great assist from YKHC, which meant that we didn't need to close down or reduce services the way that some other programs had to, which is great because in times of national stress, there's usually an uptick in interpersonal violence just because there's stress in the home.

So beyond sort of just, like, testing people all the time when they're coming in, when they're coming to shelter, we didn't experience too many differences. Like we still did about the same number of work probably, you know, saw about the same amount of people. Probably a little bit of an uptick, but what I'm most happy about is that we didn't reduce. I think a lot of agencies and services did have to just because of how the pandemic impacted things.

Martínezcuello: Can you talk to me how the relationship with the police has been?

Arnold: Yeah, we have our partnerships with everybody on the multidisciplinary team. TWC is on two multidisciplinary teams: the response to child abuse and then also adult sexual assault. On that multidisciplinary team there's different members, depending on if it's child or an adult. So we take our partnerships very seriously out here. If we're not working together, you know, we don't have anything to work with. This is a low resource area. We don't have access the same way that urban areas do, so our partnerships are sometimes all that we have. We just finished, reupping our protocols for crisis response for sexual assault, both for the children and the adults. And we certainly couldn't do that without our partners.

And we were just talking with [the Bethel Police Department] about another new non-resident program that we've got called the "advocate-initiated response." The thought behind that is that not everybody who's a victim of domestic violence needs shelter or want shelter. Shelters can be a hard place to live. We've got 10 bedrooms; sometimes we're packing, like, 40 to 50 people in there. It's everybody who's experienced trauma, that's hard. So not everybody needs or wants shelter, but we're trying to find a way to more readily reach the people who are who are experiencing domestic violence but aren't needing shelter. So police, when they respond to domestic violence, they will say, like, "hey, do you want TWC to contact you? I know you don't need shelter, but do you want TWC to contact you about other resources?" They're really just acting as an arm of our outreach, really, at that moment. And then it's totally up to them, it's a voluntary thing. And if they do want their information released, they'll give it to BPD, BPD will give it to us, we'll follow up and see if we can connect people, not just with victim services, but any other sorts of services. Because a person who's experiencing interpersonal violence, you sort of need everything. You might need housing, you might need social services, you might need medical services, behavioral health services, you know, everything that anybody needs throughout the day.

Martínezcuello: I guess I want to share with you a story because I think you made me think about something that I was confused and concerned about when I first got here [to Bethel]. I got here on Halloween. And right when I was going to bed, I received a knock at my door. And you know, we've had some people trick-or-treating and stuff like that. But it was actually a young woman in distress. And she said, 'open up,' like, she was pounding on the door. And so I opened up the door, trying to figure out like, 'Okay, what's going on?' Like, you know, I'm so disoriented because I'm in a new space. And I don't know any kind of procedures, protocols or anything like that. But I also wanted to be concerned about my safety, because I didn't know, okay, is this is something nefarious or whatever. And so she was she was visibly distraught. And she wanted me to call her a cab. And so I, she said she had a fight with her partner and she wanted to leave. And so I said, 'What can I do? What can I do?' I stayed with her, called the cab. The cab didn't come get her. So I just kept staying with her. And so I just really was so disoriented. I didn't know what to do. And I guess that's kind of why I'm, like, want to lean into this because like, what, resources could I have pointed her to if that would have made her comfortable because she did not want the police called. She did not want a big fuss. She really just wanted to get out of there.

Arnold: Well, first of all, thank you for being a good ally. I mean, I think that's a really important thing to understand about interpersonal violence in the communities that we live in. It impacts everybody. Another reason that people have a difficult time talking about it or knowing what the response is because we think it's not our issue. Sometimes we think it's a women's, issue and it's not. Anybody can be a victim of domestic or sexual violence. Sometimes we think, like, it's a family issue and we need to not get involved.
So, it's important that everybody be a good bystander, I'd say, and help in those moments. So thank you for doing that. I consider you an ally of TWC.

It is also important when responding to a person who's experienced violence is to let them make a choice, you know, especially if they're an adult. It's different talking to children; it's different for talking to vulnerable adults as well. But when you're working with an adult, you know, violent relationships are all about power and control. That's the point of them. That's what a perpetrator of violence gets out of those relationships. It's good to feel like you're in control of somebody, it's good to feel powerful. So when you're working with victims of violence, you want to give them every chance to make a choice and to be in charge of their own life as possible. So if she said, 'I don't want the police called,' that's fine. That's her choice. If what she wants is for a cab to be called then doing that is the best thing you could have done in that moment. You could also say, you know, are you interested in calling TWC, we could pay for that cab as well. She could have come to shelter if she wanted to. Again, though, we understand not everybody wants to come to shelter, it can be rough living there. And sometimes if we're full, we are screening based on lethality.

But if what she said was, 'I just want to get to a safe place,' that's what we're all about at TWC. Like, that's our end goal. That's the outcome that we want. We're going to work with people no matter what their choices are about their relationships. We are working to keep people safe. And people who are victims of violence are the best authorities on their own safety. So if she's saying, 'I just need a cab to get to a safe place,' then helping her do that is the best thing that you could do. And what we would have done also if she had called us.

The Tundra Women's Coalition can be reached on its crisis line at 907-543-3456 or toll free number at 1-800-478-7799. The business line is 907-543-3444 and after hours, it will route to the crisis line.

Francisco Martínezcuello is the KYUK News Reporting Fellow and a graduate of UC Berkeley School of Journalism. He is also a veteran of the United States Marine Corps.
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