"And that's just that fraction of women who know about us and are ready to get our help."
Photo by Nemanja Glumac via Stocksy
On Monday morning in San Bernardino, California, a 53-year-old man named Cedric Anderson entered a special needs classroom in which his estranged wife, Karen Elaine Smith, was teaching. He pulled out a gun and shot and killed her. Bullets also struck two children, one of whom died. Anderson then killed himself.
Immediately after the news broke, the phones at Option House, the only women's shelter in San Bernardino, started ringing.
The fact that this is an (extreme) instance of domestic violence hasn't quite captured the amount of press interest that other elements of the shooting have. In fact, at a press conference I attended hours after the shooting, the Q&A period was dominated by queries about the gun: What model gun did the perpetrator use? What was the distance from the shooter to the victims? How many shots were fired?
San Bernardino is ranked as the most dangerous city in California, and was the site of a terrorist shooting in 2015. So for a lot of people, this shooting is just another example of San Bernardino's decline.
But not for everyone. According to Heather Stevning, the Executive Director of Option House, the shooting has shaken up a lot of women in the area. She says that she's been getting calls from women who were afraid to seek help before, but are now feeling that the danger is more real.
"Calls have doubled," Stevning says when I visit her office the day after the shooting. "I was on the phone all last night. Everyone's been up all night answering calls." Melissa, her 14-year-old daughter nods, herself in between phone calls. It's 7:30 AM on a school day, but she's working the front desk, because the organization is so understaffed. Sitting in the chair across the desk from her is a gaunt blond woman who looks like she hasn't slept in days, with two equally sleepy-looking children in tow. "She just came in this morning," Melissa tells me later, once the client is out of earshot. "We're gonna see if they need to get into the shelter."
Option House maintains a 5,000 square foot shelter away from the office front. It's in an unmarked complex among residential and commercial buildings, because of the danger of abusers stalking their victims. Tall fences lined with security cameras surround the property. Once you're inside, it's like a small community center: there's a group kitchen, a small playset for children, a tiny exercise room with an elliptical machine and a lone punching bag with pink boxing gloves ("for getting out aggression", a volunteer tells me). There's a few storage rooms, one of them full of boxes of diapers that was donated by "somebody in Texas." Just about everything, they tell me, is donated, including the washing machines, which are courtesy of the fire department.
Then, upstairs, there are eighteen bunk beds, crammed four to a room. The beds are almost always full. When there's no room, volunteers in a small office next to the kitchen contact other shelters nearby to see if they have space. I try to strike up a conversation with the volunteers to ask how things are going, but we keep getting interrupted. The phones are ringing.
Option House isn't just a shelter - the office hosts therapy sessions, classes for both victims and abusers, and legal clinics. They also help process 80 to 100 temporary restraining orders per week. "That's a lot," Stevning says. "And that's just that fraction of women who know about us and are ready to get our help."
But Stevning isn't as worried about the lack of resources as she is about the difficulties of educating a culture that prefers not to talk about domestic violence.
"The sad thing about this situation," she says, "is that for a long time, I've been trying to get a program about healthy relationships into the schools in San Bernardino. They tell me, 'we've already got a seminar about bullying, that's enough'. But it's not enough. Kids mimic what they see, and a lot of them are growing up in abusive households. We need to break that cycle early."
A year ago, she and her daughter Melissa started a pilot program at a middle school in Redlands, a city right next to San Bernardino. Every Tuesday morning, a group of around 40 kids meet before school to eat breakfast and talk about everything from peer pressure to noticing signs of abusive relationships.
There hasn't as of yet been any indication that San Bernardino schools have changed their mind about the program, says Stevening. "But I hope they do. I hope they'll listen."