Nicole Behrens remembers the crippling fear that came with even the notion of leaving her abusive marriage two decades ago.
It was a union marked by violence and bullying that left Ms. Behrens, then an Aquebogue resident, in a perpetual fog of uncertainty about what behavior was even acceptable in a relationship. Imagine summoning the courage to escape, a child in tow, without financial security — and no housing — while living in one of the most expensive counties in New York State.
“One of the biggest issues for women — outside of just the terror of leaving — is the financial issue,” said Ms. Behrens, a board member emeritus and vocal supporter of The Retreat, the nonprofit based in East Hampton that is dedicated to providing support and housing for victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse and dating violence on the East End.
“We have kids. It’s not just us. I happen to have a very strong and supportive family, and they didn’t know what was going on with me. Imagine what it is to be that woman without a support system in place. Where do you go? What do you do? You are trapped.”
The Retreat, founded in 1987, aims to be that support system for many families on the East End, offering counseling services, legal aid, preventive education services in local schools, and temporary housing at the Stephanie House Residential Shelter, located in a safe, and secret, location.
While the facility, which can provide housing for 18 adults and children, gives its clients a space to begin healing, in the long term the nonprofit strives to help people develop a sustainable plan for a newly independent life.
That is where funding for transitional housing becomes critical to ensuring that a survivor does not become a victim once more, says The Retreat’s executive director, Loretta Davis.
Earlier this month, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand announced $450,000 in federal funding for The Retreat through the U.S. Department of Justice Transitional Housing Grant Assistance Program. The three-year grant — the second consecutive award the organization has gotten for transitional housing from the DOJ — will allow The Retreat to relocate 15 survivors and their families to housing units on Long Island.
“Sexual assault and domestic violence are devastating problems, and we must do everything we can to prevent them. This critical funding will help Retreat Inc. move survivors and their families to a safe place,” said Ms. Gillibrand in a joint press release. “It is important that we support the survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault as they seek assistance. I will continue fighting in the Senate for the resources that help protect survivors and their families.”
In addition to offering abuse survivors short-term and temporary housing, the grant also supports rental and utility assistance, case management, child care, transportation, career and financial planning, support groups, job and education training, legal assistance and follow-up services for at least three months after survivors and their families secure permanent housing.
The Retreat has bilingual staff to make sure it can reach the diverse population of the East End.
“It is really pretty amazing, because it gives us the ability to give housing to our clients when they leave the shelter, and housing for our nonresidential clients who have to get out of a really tough situation,” Ms. Davis said in an interview last week. “They have housing, housing where it is safe for them, and they can rebuild, get a job.”
Educating survivors in financial planning is critical, noted Ms. Davis, as many have been subject to financial abuse — where money is used as a means of control.
“So they don’t have money, or if they did, they don’t have access to it, and they haven’t learned financial literacy skills either,” she said. “So we are able to teach them how to budget, how to establish good credit, and that is a big part of the transitional housing program.”
This grant award is $100,000 more than The Retreat received in the last round of funding. Ms. Davis noted that the temporary housing program The Retreat offers clients is administered by an existing staff member, which means almost every penny of that federal funding is used directly to provide housing assistance, with very little in the way of overhead expenses.
Ms. Davis said the assistance can be offered to a client for as long as three months to two years, although generally most use the program for between six months and one year. The housing is located in Nassau and Suffolk counties and must be affordable, meeting U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines.
“In a lot of cases, without a program like this, the options are either to try and get into a homeless shelter, try and get a place on their own, or, if they don’t have the money, go back to the abuser,” said Ms. Davis. “There are not a lot of options. Some people don’t have family here that can help them — that is one of the reasons they came to The Retreat.”
In addition to working with landlords, The Retreat has also looked to local municipalities for help in tracking down affordable housing for clients. The nonprofit organization supported a $7 million state grant application by the East Hampton Housing Authority for its housing project in Amagansett, which was successful, and it hopes to see some housing in that project reserved for Retreat clients, of which there are many.
In 2018, The Retreat provided 4,911 safe nights in the emergency shelter for victims of abuse, about half of them children under the age of 12. It logged 2,991 hotline calls — or an average of eight per day — while its legal team made 997 trips to court to help clients with legal services and intervention, and the organization provided 2,393 sessions of counseling for adults and children.
Those numbers may be on the rise, according to Kim Nichols, the Retreat’s development director. While just under 3,000 hotline calls were logged in 2018, already, by the end of July in 2019, the nonprofit had fielded 2,900 calls. “And we are only halfway through the year,” Ms. Nichols said.
Demand is so high, in fact, Ms. Davis noted, that there is a waiting list for counseling services and the shelter is full — all 18 beds. And that is not unusual.
That is why one of the key missions of The Retreat is also to provide prevention education, led by Education Program Manager Helen Atkinson-Barnes, a Sag Harbor resident who was presenting this week at “Voices in Action,” the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence 18th national conference in Washington, D.C.
Last week, Ms. Nichols said, the Retreat’s leaders hope to secure an additional state grant that is specifically earmarked for prevention and education, which would enable the nonprofit to expand its reach under the leadership of Ms. Atkinson-Barnes.
The Retreat is expanding its services as quickly as it can, not only with grant money, but also with help from individual donors and board members who also support its annual budget of $4.6 million. Local nonprofits work together to provide excursions and support for the Retreat’s clients, including its many children. Currently, while its only visible office is on Goodfriend Drive in East Hampton, The Retreat also has offices or a presence in Southampton and Riverhead, and it is looking to expand its reach in Greenport and on the Shinnecock territory.
“The biggest challenge for us is to let people know we are here,” said Ms. Nichols, “while still being protective of where we are so they remain safe spaces. But people can reach out and find out exactly where we are.”
Ms. Behrens said she is not sure she would be where she is today without The Retreat.
It was 2000 and Ms. Behrens had taken a step forward, going to court in Riverhead to seek an order of protection against her now ex-husband.
She remembers sitting in court looking at the women around her and thinking to herself, “I don’t belong here.”
“But, of course, I did,” she said. “But you start rationalizing it all. I remember telling my story to the court clerk, who was typing it up for the judge, and I was minimizing everything. I look back now, and it just seems insane.”
It was then that Wendy Russo, a legal advocate for The Retreat, came over to Ms. Behrens and introduced herself. Their conversation ended with Ms. Russo telling her, “I am here for you.”
“And in that moment I knew that I needed her,” said Ms. Behrens. “And she was there for me — she practically did not leave my side for three days and got me through that court process, which is a foreign place for anyone who has not been through it before, and a frightening process at that.
“I don’t know if I would have been able to stay away from him without her,” she added.
“She was the last piece that enabled me to break away: Her commitment to me, her telling me when she heard my stories, ‘That is not normal. That is not okay.’ And I was standing there, in the worst moment of my life, barely functioning and in a fog, and she was telling me this was not how life has to be.”
Ms. Behrens is now happily married and an assistant vice president and senior financial advisor with Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, settled in Southampton. Her daughter, Hannah, just graduated from Northeastern University in Boston and is working toward her master’s degree at Columbia University, with a focus in psychology.
Like her mother, Hannah believes in advocacy and advocacy for organizations that aid victims and survivors of domestic violence.
“They saved my life,” Ms. Behrens said. “I try to be that person now who goes to court, works with women in the community. It’s my life’s work. And now my daughter does it as well.”