Tester tours Friendship Center

Helena IR

by Derek Brouwer

The Friendship Center opened its doors to Sen. Jon Tester on Wednesday afternoon, giving the U.S. Democrat a glimpse of the shelter and services it provides to women who are survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

Tester joined the center’s staff on a tour of its facility, which serves women in Broadwater, Jefferson and Lewis and Clark counties.

The shelter provides 12 beds for survivors. Those in one of four emergency beds stay for up to 30 days, while women utilizing the center’s transitional housing have stayed for up to 18 months.

The Friendship Center relies in large part on federal grants, which support salaries for six full-time staff members. They provide services ranging from counseling to crisis support to education and outreach, Executive Director Melinda Reed said.

One large grant designated for rural areas makes up nearly 30 percent of the Friendship Center’s budget. The center operated without that grant for most of last year, Reed said, leading to a handful of layoffs – but no cutbacks in services.

Last year, center staff worked with more than 1,000 women.

“We served more clients than ever before with less staff,” Reed explained to Tester.

The staffing shortage shouldn’t be an issue for the next few years, however. Reed said the center just learned it will receive around $926,000 over the next three years through the federal rural grant program. Reed said the center is planning to add another full-time position and two part-time night spots.

Over the summer, a couple of other federal grants came in, administered through the Montana Board of Crime Control, which total around $112,000.

In addition to federal funding, the Friendship Center is supported by donations from community members, Reed said, showing the senator a large room filled with clothing, toiletries and other items.

“The generosity is literally overwhelming,” she said. “Every day we see bags and bags, boxes and boxes” of donated supplies.

Reed said the Friendship Center is poised to have its busiest year yet. She told Tester the increases in calls and clients are due in part to the center’s quality of service as well as broader trends that are enabling more survivors to come forward or seek help.

Asked by the senator what else could be done to support the center, Reed cited funding as a limiting factor, but added that many other facilities aren’t as well-supported as Helena’s.

“A lot of shelters unfortunately don’t have the resources we do,” she said.

Reed said the federal Violence Against Women Act makes available funding and offers broad guidelines for its work.

“It gives us a sort of legal framework for what we do,” she said.

Tester called the Violence Against Women Act one of the largest “direct avenues” by which the federal government can address domestic and sexual violence. He cosponsored the congressional bill to reauthorize the act earlier this year.

“It’s really important as we talk about opportunities of where we’re going to cut in the budget – and those conversations have to go on,” Tester said. “Programs like this, which, quite frankly have seen an increase in the need for funds … have the money they need so they can work with the community to meet the needs of women who’ve had violence committed against them.”