Alumni Voices: Surviving a Pandemic When Home Isn’t a Safe Haven

Alumni Elyse with two colleagues at support services table

Elyse Hamilton-Childres ’09 and her colleagues are adapting the ways they offer mental health and other services to vulnerable populations during the pandemic.

Sheltering at home is even rougher when you don’t have one. Or the home you have isn’t safe.

The fear and confinement of the COVID-19-driven stay-at-home orders are stressing those in the best of circumstances. It’s magnified for someone who is homeless or lives in a home where they are threatened with violence, said Elyse Hamilton-Childres, prevention and intervention services division director at Mecklenburg County Community Support Services. That’s the county in North Carolina that includes Davidson College, from which Hamilton-Childres graduated in 2009.

“Homeless and domestic violence shelters are full on a good day,” she said. Now they are overflowing in attempts to maintain safe physical distance between residents.

As uncertainty grows for industries that employ low wage workers, those workers find themselves in a precarious position. Nearly 80,000 renter households in Mecklenburg County spend more than a third of their income on housing and related expenses. In ordinary times, the loss of one paycheck can propel those households into homelessness.

The stresses of job and income loss, children home from closed schools and anxiety from the pandemic are exacerbated among vulnerable populations. 

Calls to the Greater Charlotte Hope Line are up more than 40 percent since the start of the pandemic. The Hope Line provides crisis support for domestic violence, sexual assault and parenting stress.

Where does a person without a safe home go to quarantine?

As a leader with Mecklenburg County Community Support Services, Hamilton-Childres is involved on the frontlines of implementing solutions. Mecklenburg County is collaborating with emergency management officials, local nonprofits and businesses to make temporary hotel arrangements for many families experiencing homelessness, as well as individuals and families who do not have a safe place to quarantine and isolate.

Supportive services depend heavily on face-to-face interactions. Hamilton-Childres says her colleagues normally go with clients to court for a protective order, to search for housing, to get a counselor. All of that has changed.

“We have to be creative and find what support for them we can,” she said. “How can we extend virtual services? How do we ensure the ethics and safety of virtual individual or group counseling? What if clients don’t have access to technology or that access is in a home with a [domestic violence] offender?” 

She and her colleagues are working through social media platforms to get information to clients in these situations, get them strategies they might consider. It’s guidance that’s as basic as: If the situation escalates at home, what room is safest to be in, with the fewest hard surfaces or potential weapons in it? Or is there a neighbor they can alert in some way?

“Working in a victim services field, you are trained to be able to adapt quickly, to expect crisis,” Hamilton-Childres said. “The magnitude of this pandemic is impacting every system that exists. It’s really tough and new territory for a lot of people in this field.”

Victim service professionals and first responders also need the community’s help. She said this is an important time to check in with neighbors who might be in difficult domestic situations or have struggled with substance use. Set up a secret signal—a lamp that they turn on, an object in a window—if they need help. Help them avoid relapse. Come up with healthy ways they can deal with the stress. 

“We really need everyone in every neighborhood,” she said, “to see themselves as being on the front lines.” 

If you or someone you know needs help, consider the following resources:

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

SAMHSA Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990


  • April 17, 2020