I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard women say this as they entered shelter – during my first few years working in a battered women’s shelter in Kentucky 28 years ago and during my time at Eastside Domestic Violence Program (now LifeWire) in east King County. Even with better laws, improved police enforcement, and civil protection orders, hundreds of women and children are forced into homelessness not only because of safety concerns but also because of the financial impact of ending an abusive relationship. Thousands more are on the brink of homelessness as they struggle to make ends meet and create a normal life for their children. And all too many respond to the impacts of trauma with coping mechanisms that lead to the loss of their children and entrance into a longer-term cycle of homelessness.
After years of working in domestic violence emergency shelters, I believe that, while emergency shelters have been and continue to be life-saving, we need to think about ways to prevent homelessness due to domestic violence and to support survivors in achieving stability in the housing of their choice, either after shelter or completely by-passing shelter. The Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV) was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation 4 ½ years ago to coordinate a pilot project intended to do just that. Domestic Violence Housing First eliminates housing as a reason for survivors to stay in abusive relationships by providing advocacy and a flexible approach to support that gives survivors the ability to establish a home and the freedom to choose how best to rebuild their lives.
Three organizations in King County have received this funding: LifeWire, InterIm CDA, and the Salvation Army Domestic Violence Program. Additional programs in eastern Washington, the Olympic Peninsula, and Whatcom County have also tested the strategies of flexible advocacy and financial assistance in rural areas and in culturally-specific communities.
And back to the opening quote—almost half of the survivors entering these programs ask for help to stay in their own home. A recent interview with a survivor brought me to tears as she described how important it was to her to remain in the home that she had faithfully been making payments on so that her small child could remain in his neighborhood and she could keep her job. The program helped install security doors, motion detector lighting, and a security system linked directly to her local police department. The program also accommodated her family’s need (including the dog) for emergency respite in a motel while her home was secured. For many rural communities with little housing stock, taking steps for housing retention—safety improvements, paying back rent, making repairs—is more logical than uprooting the family when other affordable housing options are non-existent.
Of course, many survivors need to leave their community—not just the geographic area, but also their cultural community, for safety. The flexibility in advocacy and financial assistance can help the survivor choose and settle into a new, supportive community. Take a few minutes and look at the InterIm CDA video clip for a couple of heartwarming survivor stories. For another perspective on flexible advocacy and financial assistance, there’s also the video clip from New Hope in Moses Lake. While this program targets its work to Latina farm workers, their advocate was able to provide extensive help to a male survivor of domestic violence. The story of Michael and his dog, Honcho, illustrates the many faces of domestic violence survivors—along with the variety of needs that they may have.
Faith communities are often a critical component for the safety and stability of domestic violence survivors and their families. Unfortunately, the stigma associated with both domestic violence and homelessness hangs over the heads of survivors and they may hesitate to disclose their situation to their clergy and lay leaders. For tips on creating a safe and welcoming environment for the survivors in your congregation, visit the FaithTrust Institute website at www.faithtrustinstitute.org.
Linda Olsen is the Housing Program Coordinator with the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. She has master’s degrees in theology (Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary) and social work (University of Washington). Her vocation and avocation for the past 28 years is in the field of domestic violence.
If you’re interested in reading more blog posts like this one, check out “Want to end homelessness? Then we need to address domestic violence.” by Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune of FaithTrust Institute