Domestic violence, homelessness linked
Problem is escalating even as support funds are being cut
CONGRESS HAS ESTABLISHED October as National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, marking a time to celebrate survivors, to grieve for those who have died, and to pay tribute to advocates who work tirelessly to end it. Domestic violence is a public health crisis that afflicts all communities – urban, suburban, and rural. One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.
Family homelessness and domestic violence are closely linked. To protect their families, mothers flee their homes with kids in tow, a few bags, and limited financial resources. In pursuit of safety, they become entrapped in a cycle of homelessness. As a local provider of affordable housing and services for mothers and children that are homeless due to domestic violence, I witness its sinister manifestations daily, including physical, psychological, and financial abuse. In 2016, the Massachusetts domestic violence hotline received an average of 25 calls per hour seeking help. This is alarming and should be a wake-up call for all of us here in the Bay State.
The intersection of domestic violence and homelessness for mothers with children is well documented. The Federal Administration for Children and Families tells us that more than 80 percent of homeless mothers present with a history of domestic violence. The National Network to End Domestic Violence annual census provides a one-day, point-in-time record of individuals (unduplicated) who access domestic violence services. In 2016, Massachusetts domestic violence programs provided services to a staggering 1,834 people in one day. Regrettably, programs could not meet 85 percent of the requests for a safe place to live. The national network identifies access to safe, affordable housing, confidentiality, and financial resources as the most pressing needs for women planning to leave or who have left their abusers.
We now know that we can’t end family homelessness without addressing domestic violence. Until recently, homeless families and domestic violence survivors were perceived as two distinct populations. As a result, systems serving these families operate on parallel paths. Emergency domestic violence shelters generally provide short-term stays, safety planning, legal services, and advocacy for survivors. Homeless providers target services necessary to access and maintain permanent housing. They don’t accept domestic violence survivors because they are not sufficiently trained to address confidentiality issues and the threat of violence posed by abusers. We now know, based on research documenting the prevalence of homeless women with histories of abuse, they are identical populations. Fortunately, organizations like the Domestic Violence and Housing Technical Assistance Consortium are beginning to use this new information to identify promising ventures and methodologies that address the intersection of homelessness and domestic violence.
This year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development – which provides funds for rental subsidies, vouchers, and public housing – is expected to slash its budget by $7 billion and eliminate over 100,000 rental vouchers. Without subsidies and vouchers, many survivors have no choice but to remain with or return to their abusers. The consequences, according to survivors, are grim – loss of their children, continued abuse, even death.
Addressing domestic violence as a root cause is key to preventing and decreasing family homelessness. Committing sufficient resources to prevention, safe housing, services, and policy initiatives will bring both ethical and economic results. During 2016, 63 percent of direct service positions in domestic violence programs across the Commonwealth were eliminated. HUD cuts to housing subsidies, limited affordable housing, and a budget shortfall in the state add up to thousands of domestic violence survivors and their children at risk of further victimization.No one should be abused. Survivors want safety for themselves and their children in their homes, to have legal protections from abuse, and to be financially independent so they can support their families. Massachusetts is nationally recognized for creating innovative programs for mothers and children. Uniting and aligning partnerships, resources, and survivor-centered policies at the local, state, and federal levels will create a real chance for ending this epidemic of violence against women, and its ripple effects on children.
Deborah Hughes is president and CEO of Brookview House Inc. in Dorchester.