As the economy spirals downward, domestic abuse appears to be increasing around the region and the country, advocates and shelter officials say.

"We are clearly seeing an increase in the number of people who are looking for help," says Carole Alexander, executive director of the House of Ruth Maryland, which runs a shelter in Northeast Baltimore. The shelter, which has 84 beds, is packed; Every night, seven or eight people sleep on couches and in sleeping bags in the building's offices.

At the Heartly House, a 29-bed shelter in Frederick, "we are stretched to the max," says CEO Barbara Martin.

Martin, Alexander and others who deal with domestic abuse say they see a

link between job losses, tighter budgets and foreclosures and a rise in domestic abuse cases and calls to hot lines.

"Economic stress is a very, very important factor in domestic violence," says Shoshana Ringel, an associate professor of social work at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and an expert on domestic abuse. Ringel says that for many couples, financial problems can "definitely push things over the line."

More than half a million Americans, almost all of them women, are abused by their partners every year, according the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Experts say the current economic crisis is so recent that there is little hard data on an increase in abuse. But the National Domestic Violence Hotline, a leading national organization located in Austin, Texas, says that in September, it saw a 21 percent increase in the number of calls it received, compared with last year. In October, the last month for which there are statistics, the rise was 18 percent.

As a call-taker at the hot line, Melissa Kaufmann listens to victims talking about the toll financial stress is having. "It's been coming up a lot more lately," she says. "It really is more of an issue now. The bills can't get paid; the house is getting foreclosed on."

Over the past 30 years, economic downturns have triggered surges in abuse, says professor Chitra Raghavan, a domestic violence researcher at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "Every time there's a recession, you see a clear increase," she said. "Serena" typifies this trend. She lives with her husband and their children in a Maryland suburb (to protect her identity, The Baltimore Sun is not using her name.)

Their marriage had been troubled for several years, but in recent months, as his small business deteriorated and unpaid bills accumulated, her husband has become increasingly abusive, she says. "It's walking on eggshells all the time," says the middle-aged woman, who has started talking to counselors at a shelter.

Meanwhile, she says, her husband's business has all but come to a halt. The family's cars have been repossessed and their house is in danger of foreclosure. "We're behind on everything," she says. "He gets very frustrated, very, very angry," she says.

Her husband constantly berates and threatens her, and obsessively tries to control and monitor her activities. She has a part-time job, but despite their lack of money, he doesn't want her to work.

Such seemingly illogical behavior is common, Rhagavan says. In general, domestic abusers are trying to control their partners. This, researchers say, is why the bad times lead to increases in abuse: As those prone to domestic violence lose control financially, they become even more desperate to dominate their partners.

"When they're not the breadwinner, their self-esteem is threatened," says Alexander. "They're looking for someone to blame. Often that's the partner."

Researchers emphasize that financial problems alone rarely cause domestic violence: Not everyone who loses a job or a home beats a partner. But such stress can often exacerbate existing tendencies. "Violence doesn't start with job loss," Rhagavan says. "But it can make it worse."

Money problems can be especially hard on men, who make up the majority of abusers. Although gender roles have changed over the past several decades, many men - especially those with less education - continue to see earning a salary and providing for their family as central to their identity.

"Margaret" says her boyfriend fell into this category. "He says he's the man of the house; he's supposed to work," she says. (Her name has also been changed to protect her.)

But his hours and salary as a mover in the Baltimore area have dropped sharply. Most weeks, he worked only two or three days a week, barely making enough to pay the rent on their apartment.

The stress affected him, says Margaret, a woman in her 20s. Last month, he got so angry that he held her by the neck and threw her against a wall, even though she was, and is, pregnant with their child. She left, and is living at a shelter.