Hilltown Resource Center ‘back to normal’ but local problems persist

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Winifred Seymour, left, stands with program assistant Brenda Burke at the Hilltowns Community Resource Center, surrounded by donated food and goods.

HILLTOWNS — When dealing with the county-wide increase in domestic violence calls, it’s easy to get hard numbers: From last year’s 1,197 domestic violence calls, the rate has gone up 10 to 15 percent, according to the director of Albany County’s Crime Victim and Sexual Violence Center, Karen Ziegler.

She attributes the rise to various aspects of the coronavirus pandemic. 

But measuring the increase in domestic violence in the rural and isolated Hilltowns is harder. 

“As you know, there’s not a lot up here,” Hilltown Community Resource Center Program Coordinator Mary Beth Peterson told The Enterprise, “so we’re kind of it.” 

Peterson said that, in April alone, just after the pandemic had been declared and New York’s pause was put into place, the center helped place “five or six” women into apartments, and two more in the months since. 

“It became our role to make sure to provide for them,” Peterson said, “because, when they come out of the shelter, they have nothing. They just have what’s on their back.” 

The spike wasn’t a surprise, as the financial and psychological stressors that come with the pandemic, coupled with the necessary precaution of staying at home, were a natural recipe for domestic violence. 

In early April, Hilltown resident Richard Umholtz, who helped establish and manage Helderberg Interfaith Safe Haven, which for 20 years provided a shelter  for anyone at risk of violence, told The Enterprise that he was working to re-establish a shelter, as the old shelter had fallen by the wayside. 

Umholtz contacted Peterson for assistance in the project, but the new shelter never materialized, he said, because of the various logistical obstacles, from safety regulations to funding. Peterson said this week that she hasn’t heard from Umholtz in months.

“It’s definitely something that’s needed up here,” Peterson said, “but I don’t know how to proceed.” 

Peterson said that the major benefit of the original shelter was that it allowed Hilltown victims to find safety without leaving their community. She said that the victims who sought help during the pandemic mostly ended up in Ravena, a village south of Albany that’s roughly 40 minutes away from Altamont.  

Comfort plays a big role in the willingness of a domestic-violence victim to seek help, and this lack of comfort created by the pandemic created a counterintuitive dip in calls that the county crime-victim center experienced early on, Ziegler said, despite concurrent rise in domestic violence calls to the county sheriff.

In April, Ziegler told The Enterprise there was a 50-percent decrease in hotline calls and “very few requests to provide support for victims in the emergency room.”

This week, Ziegler told The Enterprise, “Some sexual-assault and domestic-violence victims were hesitant to seek services in the emergency rooms for the first few months, but they have also returned, seeking services.”

Ziegler said, though, that reporting is “still problematic.”

And in the Hilltowns, proximity to assistance is especially important not just for domestic-violence victims but for those with mental health and/or substance abuse issues, for which Peterson said help on the Hill is “very, very minimal.”

“Our families will not go to Albany to get services,” Peterson said. “If there was just something closer it would be so much easier to refer them to a therapist, a psychiatrist, whatever. 

“There’s a lot of drug and alcohol abuse up here,” she went on, “and we see it, but to ask a family to drive down to downtown Albany — they’re not going to do it. They don’t have the capability. They don’t have the gas money, the time, the babysitters. So we do see that, especially with winter coming.”

In addition to the spike of domestic violence cases in the Hilltowns, Peterson said that the elderly are a point of concern during the pandemic, and the resource center’s home deliveries help “put eyes on them,” but that the situation isn’t critical.

“We do have a couple that check in with us,” Peterson said. “I’d say three or four different seniors. We had a couple on our radar that had more of a neglect issue than anything … We were able to get involved with the Albany County Adult Protective Services and they’ve since been placed in a nursing home.” 

“I don’t really think that’s too out of control up here,” Peterson said, “because I think there’s enough of us that are aware in the community that kind of keep our eyes open and try to keep communication with the family.” 

“There’s a very large population of people up here that are intellectually disabled that kind of refuse services,” Peterson added, “but really their mental health and hygiene … aren’t being taken care of, so we try to be kind and put our nose in where it doesn’t belong and try and get them what they need.” 

Because of the pandemic, the resource center more than doubled the number of clients it served each month, jumping from 80 in a typical non-pandemic year to 250 this year, Peterson said, and some of the center’s usual donors became clients themselves.

“I would say the majority of them were people that got laid off,” Peterson said. “They didn’t have unemployment yet, there was no stimulus yet. So I would say more than double our numbers were definitely people affected by the COVID [shutdown].”

Now, with the state more or less reopened, Peterson said that the number of clients has gone down to around 100.

“I would say we’re back to normal,” Peterson said, “for the most part.” 

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