Housing a Crucial, Missing Link for Women Escaping Domestic Violence

File photo/Thinkstock
File photo/Thinkstock.

When Los Angeles County resident Cynthia Smith mustered the courage to leave her abusive husband, she had nowhere to go but her car. She lived out of her vehicle until she began to accrue parking tickets she couldn’t pay for—and then her car was towed. Suddenly, the former middle-class housewife found herself alone on the streets. Her only option was a homeless drop-in center on Skid Row.

“It’s such a stereotypical story,” says Amy Turk, chief program officer at the Downtown Women’s Center, also on Skid Row, who withheld Smith’s real name in order to protect her privacy. Turk explains that Smith was financially dependent on her husband; he controlled the bank accounts and how much money Smith was allotted. He also controlled who Smith called, frequently checking her phone records and threatening her if she contacted family members or friends. Eventually, he disconnected her phone.

“He slowly whittled away at her resources,” says Turk. “The erosion on her self-esteem made her feel like it was her fault. It was too shameful for her to reach out.”

And so Smith became one of the 13,000 people who, according to a recent Economic Roundtable report, fall into homelessness each month in Los Angeles County. Though most are homeless for temporary stints, the report estimates that 42 percent of those entering homelessness do not receive the services they need to become permanently housed. One-third of the nation’s chronically homeless live in California, with Los Angeles comprising the largest homeless population in the state. The most recent count documented 44,359 homeless people in Los Angeles County during a three-day period in January of 2015, a 12 percent increase since 2013.

While single, adult men make up the majority of L.A.’s homeless population, the percentage of women has steadily increased since the 1970s, according to the Downtown Women’s Action Coalition. Today, 33 percent of homeless people in the Greater Los Angeles area are women. Like Smith, many have fled violent homes. A 2013 assessment found that 61 percent of women on Skid Row had experienced domestic violence—a conservative estimate, says Turk. “Our needs assessment reflects women who choose to report. Sadly, the rate is likely much higher.”

“Domestic violence is a red flag for homelessness,” says Daniel Flaming, president of the Economic Roundtable and co-author of the report, which draws on nine years of public assistance records from nearly 9 million L.A. County residents. The report highlights domestic violence among a number of “tripwire events” that indicate a high risk of housing instability and which, if intervened, can narrow the pathway to homelessness, says Flaming. “It’s important to get help for [victims], especially now that there’s ample funding through the Affordable Care Act for mental health, substance abuse and physical health problems.”

Yet, too often social service agencies—including those for public assistance, homeless services and domestic violence—operate in silos, Flaming says. He describes their disparate services as “ships passing in the night.”

The link between abuse and homelessness

As Smith’s story illustrates, domestic violence can directly cause women to tumble into homelessness. But domestic violence also indirectly causes housing instability due to interwoven factors that stem from a history of abuse.

“Anyone who experiences domestic violence experiences trauma,” says Emily Martin, program coordinator of the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence. She explains that trauma changes the brain, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder. Survivors may live in a near-constant state of hyper-arousal, reacting in “fight, flight or freeze” mode even if they are no longer in danger. They may also experience debilitating depression and have trouble trusting people.

“This makes it difficult to reach out for help, it makes it challenging to access services, and it also gets people kicked out of programs because of erratic behavior,” Martin says, adding that some survivors develop unhealthy coping mechanisms. “Unfortunately, we see people cope with trauma by substance abuse, and that may make them ineligible for services.”

Studies show that domestic violence has grim economic consequences for survivors, even several years after the abuse has ended. Victims are more likely to be fired for poor attendance, poor work performance, excessive personal phone calls or disturbances from their abuser showing up at their workplace.

Lack of affordable housing often creates insurmountable barriers for low-income survivors. Domestic violence shelters are set up for emergency stays, typically offering refuge for 30-90 days. “For most people, that is not a lot of time—especially in California,” says Martin, adding that many women have nowhere to go from there. “There are some programs that offer transitional housing, but there is very limited funding.”

Likewise, permanent low-income housing units are limited and wait lists are often long. According to the Economic Roundtable report, the current wait for section 8 housing vouchers exceeds ten years.

Even if survivors are able to find affordable housing, they may be denied a place to live if they have a record marred by evictions due to an abuser’s violent episodes or property damage, frequent 911 calls, repeated moves or a previous broken lease. California housing law allows victims of domestic violence to terminate their rental lease early without penalty, but many victims are unaware of their rights, says Martin, adding, “that’s not what people are thinking about when they’re trying to escape a dangerous situation.”

Once a survivor enters homelessness, her circumstances become dire, says Turk. “Homelessness in and of itself is traumatic for anyone. Carrying other trauma compounds that and makes it harder to move forward.”

Breaking down silos

One of the main challenges in narrowing the path between domestic violence and homelessness is the lack of coordination between agencies that serve victims of abuse and agencies that serve homeless people. Domestic violence programs tend to focus on crisis intervention and advocacy services that help victims stay out of immediate danger, while homeless services tend to focus on helping people secure long-term housing and financial stability. In reality, domestic violence survivors need both.

“Last year, one of our highest unmet needs was housing,” says Martin. During their 2014 24-hour census, the National Network to End Domestic Violence found that out of 1,216 unmet requests on a single day in California, 55 percent (669) were for housing. In the census report, a California advocate stated, “Oftentimes, survivors who are trying to escape very violent situations decide to return to their abuser because they have no other options. If they don’t, they will become homeless.”

And once a survivor is homeless, she is filtered into the homeless services system. By the time Smith showed up at the drop-in center on Skid Row, weeks had passed and she was no longer in immediate danger from her husband. Though she still was reeling from the impacts of abuse, she wasn’t referred to services for survivors—she was instead referred to a homeless shelter.

“Sadly, there is a big distinction between homeless shelters and domestic violence shelters,” says Turk. Most homeless shelters do not have the resources or expertise for trauma recovery, and the vast majority house both men and women, which can be traumatic for women who’ve been victimized. A similar predicament often plays out for women who are abused by intimate partners while they are homeless.

“When you’re living on the street, you might enter into an unsafe relationship in order to meet your basic needs,” Turk says, recounting homeless women she’s known who’ve partnered with men who beat or raped them in order to avoid being randomly robbed, beaten or gang-raped. “A lot of domestic violence shelters won’t accept them if they’re not actively living in a home with domestic violence. Somehow you move violence into the street or into a tent and it’s no longer considered domestic violence. Then your only option becomes the general emergency shelter system.”

Thus, the cycle continues: trauma compounding trauma, making it more and more difficult for victims to emerge from homelessness. The Economic Roundtable report concludes that prevention is critical for reducing the numbers of homeless people—and that public assistance offices can play a vital role in identifying high-risk individuals and connecting them with agencies that can help them meet specific needs. One way they can do this, says Flaming, is by strengthening partnerships with domestic violence agencies.

The San Jose CalWORKS office has embraced this partnership model by funding an onsite advocate from Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence. Kathleen Krenek, executive director of Next Door Solutions, says this partnership has not only helped survivors get the support and services they need to escape dangerous situations and heal from trauma, but it’s also given advocates the expertise to help survivors find long-term housing.

“There are a lot of commonalities between poor women and poor women who are battered,” says Krenek. “They both need affordable housing and a stable income. But then battered women have all these other needs as well.”

The Downtown Women’s Center is bridging the gap between homeless services and domestic violence services through a holistic model. They run a drop-in day center, a permanent supportive housing complex, onsite physical and mental health care, and education and job readiness programs. In addition, they run the only trauma recovery center in the state that works specifically with homeless women. All their homeless service workers are also advocates.

Luckily, while Smith was staying in the homeless shelter, there was a vacancy in one of the permanent units at the Downtown Women’s Center. It was there that she finally received the assistance she needed. “When someone finds a safe place to live, there is space to heal from the psychological trauma of abuse,” says Turk.

Smith eventually went back to school and started a career. On her days off, she volunteers at the center as a mentor to other women who are working to piece their lives back together.

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