When you work in the domestic-violence field, you hear this all the time: “Why doesn’t she just leave?” Given the reality of housing options available, this is a ridiculous question.
IT’S no secret that we have a homelessness problem. And we’re never going to solve it if we keep ignoring one of the most vulnerable populations: domestic-violence survivors and their children.
Domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness for women and children. More than 80 percent of homeless women with children have experienced domestic violence, and a 2012 study found that domestic-violence victims were the largest subgroup of homeless people in Washington state.
We’ve been treating domestic violence and homelessness as separate issues for decades now, and it’s time to ask ourselves the question: Do the domestic-violence and homelessness services we set up decades ago meet people’s current needs? The answer is no.
Emergency domestic-violence shelters do meet a critical need. However, they can’t be the only solution. Many survivors will never access shelter — on just one day in Washington state, domestic-violence shelters had to turn away 700 requests. The ones who do get into a shelter still face the slow, painful process of finding housing that is safe and affordable. All too many times, survivors become caught in a cycle of fleeing from and returning to a violent home because of the lack of stable housing. For children, the trauma of frequent moves and unstable living environments compounds the trauma of being exposed to domestic violence.
When you work in the domestic-violence field, you hear the same question over and over: “Why doesn’t she just leave?” Given the reality of housing options available, this is a ridiculous question.
Unfortunately, due to the nature of domestic violence, survivors who are at risk of homelessness or who become homeless are a hidden population. Federal, state, and county funding priorities have focused on those who are chronically homeless; the visible homeless. Ending homelessness for those who are vulnerable and living on the streets is important, but so is protecting victims of domestic violence and their children.
Seven years ago, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence began exploring whether a housing-first approach could be successful for domestic-violence survivors. The housing-first philosophy prioritizes providing people experiencing homelessness with permanent housing as quickly as possible — and then providing voluntary supportive services as needed.
After three years, the research clearly showed that a domestic-violence-housing-first program improved survivors’ ability to get — and keep — safe, stable housing, with 96 percent of program participants still in stable housing 18 months after entering the program. And what’s more, research showed that permanent housing provided the stability survivors needed to get a job, keep a job, enroll in school or complete their education.
Housing stability also had a profound impact on children. Being able to stay at one school, have their own space to do homework and invite their friends over without fear were all identified as key benefits. As one survivor shared, “They are smiling now, they run around the house. My oldest daughter has friends over for the first time.”
Funders are starting to take note. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is making an intentional move away from temporary to permanent housing options. Ultimately, this will benefit everyone. However, in the meantime, domestic-violence agencies are not prioritized for permanent housing investments because chronically homeless individuals are the people we see every day.
In order to end homelessness, we must commit to serving domestic-violence survivors and their children.
It is not just the financial investment that is important. Community connections are critical for a survivor to rebuild his or her life and to thrive. The connections that come through supportive landlords, neighborhoods, schools and places of work are vital to ending the cycles of violence and homelessness — especially for children who just need a chance to be kids.
No one should ever have to choose between staying with an abusive partner or becoming homeless. Let’s stop making them.