How Can We Help Survivors of Domestic Violence Struggling with Homelessness?
By Stephanie Hargrove (Clinical Psychology Doctoral Student, George Mason University)
It is an unfortunate reality that many women and children who are able to escape their abuser end up homeless. A recent survey found that 17 percent of cities cited domestic violence as the primary cause of family homelessness (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2014). This prevalent issue is something that many people do not realize is happening. Here are some of the myths about domestic violence and homelessness that need to be dispelled.
Only women can experience domestic violence
In fact, domestic violence can happen to anyone, men, women and children. The U.S. Department of Justice defines domestic violence as “a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner. Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person”. Domestic violence is abuse that occurs in the home by a family member or intimate partner. Therefore, even children who are abused by their parents experience domestic violence.
However, it is true that DV survivors are primarily women. More than 1 in 3 women (35.6%) and more than 1 in 4 men (28.5%) in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
People who are experiencing DV can leave anytime they want
In many cases, survivors are threatened, beaten, and their resources (i.e., money, car, connections to friends and family) are stripped from them in order to prevent them from leaving their abuser.
People experiencing DV are typically isolated and have very few options to escape the abuse
Many times children, commitment to the marriage/relationship, and cultural norms are all reasons that survivors will stay with their abuser.
People end up homeless or in poverty because of their own bad decisions
People can become homeless or live in poverty because of any number of unfortunate life events coupled with a system that makes it extremely difficult for people to escape the grips of poverty no matter how hard they try.
The majority of homeless women are survivors of domestic violence. Approximately 63% of homeless women have experienced domestic violence in their adult lives (National Network to End Domestic Violence). Meaning that in order to preserve their life and wellbeing, they had to make the decision to leave their home, usually with limited resources, almost guaranteeing homelessness.
People who are affluent now, will never end up homeless
Anyone could end up homeless regardless of their current circumstances. An estimated 3.5 million people will experience temporary homelessness at some point in a given year, including some 1.35 million children according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
There are many survivors of DV who are affluent. There are also several cases of women who lost their homes and finances because their abuser took it all and they did what was necessary to survive.
So what does homelessness due to domestic violence look like in real life?
Imagine you have endured days, months, or even years of abuse at the hands of someone you love. One day you decide that it is no longer safe to remain in the same home as this person. Now what?
If you are married to this person, you made a commitment to love and honor this person for the rest of your life.
If you have children with this person you do not want the children to have to grow up without their other parent in their life.
If you are dating, you love and care about this person, you made plans with them and planned your future together.
If it is your parent, you are supposed to obey them, you rely on them for love, advice, support, and protection.
Imagine that despite the deep investment you have in this person, you decide that you must leave. Now what?
You have to figure out where you would go and how you would end the relationship – all the while knowing that this person has threatened you and your family if you were to leave.
Let’s say you manage to escape your abuser’s home unharmed. Now where do you go?
Your abuser made sure to isolate you from the rest of your family so they are not too sympathetic to your situation.
Even if you do manage to find a family member to stay with, it will most likely be temporary and it is not always safe to stay in places where your abuser knows they could find you.
So what’s another option? Maybe you could stay in a hotel. Well, that could work but that option will get pricey quickly. It’s not a long term solution.
How about find a new place to live? That is a long term solution but that takes money and time. If you have to work during the day it can be very difficult to search for a new home.
If you are living in poverty, the costly options are not options at all.
If you are middle class or affluent, all of your money may not be available to you. Imagine that you share a bank account with your abuser, they may move the money so that you can’t leave. They might have put their name on the house the car and other items you both own so that you cannot legally try to take those things.
So now you are at the point where you’ve left your abuser, you’ve used up your immediate housing resources (e.g., a hotel for a couple nights, staying with a family member for a week or two, searching for a new place) and you need a place to go. Now you start reaching out to domestic violence shelters because there is no other option for safe housing.
When you call the DV agency it is still not guaranteed that you will get housing.
They ask you if you have a son over the age of 13. You do and they tell you unfortunately your son will not be able to stay with you in the shelter.
Or you call and find out that their shelter is at capacity.
Let’s say you are able to find a domestic violence shelter that will be able to house you and your children. Now you are able to utilize the services available in the shelter.
However, you now have a curfew, they have limited food options, you cannot tell anyone the location of your residence, you have strict visitor rules and requirements, and you have to check in with someone regularly.
This is a huge adjustment, it may even be slightly traumatizing to be in another controlling environment. What are your options now?
Pretty much the streets, a homeless shelter with less rules but no guaranteed protection or services for survivors, or stay in the DV shelter where you will at least be safe until you no longer need their services.
As a former domestic violence shelter volunteer and hotline counselor, I have witnessed people deal with every scenario in the previously presented hypothetical situation. One of the most unfortunate things I have come to realize is that in the midst of escaping an abuser, someone who is limited financially has very few good options available to them. It is also unfortunate that some of the policies put in place to protect survivors can end up making it more difficult for them to seek services.
There are several laws and regulations in place for domestic violence shelters. The regulations vary by state but many shelters across the country are tasked with the same obligations to ensure the safety of the residents. These regulations include keeping the shelter location secret, not allowing males in many of the shelters (even if it is an older son of the woman escaping abuse), enforcing a curfew, limiting visitors, and they typically are instructed to keep close tabs on the residents.
So not only does the person have to deal with the severe psychological trauma stemming from the abuse they endured from a loved one, they also have to deal with losing their home, sometimes their job, friends, and family. On top of all of those things, the rules in the shelter might make them feel like prisoners. Sometimes even with the best intentions of helping to protect survivors, shelter policies may end up further traumatizing residents by restricting their power. That type of complex trauma experience can have extremely negative consequences on survivors .
How You Can Help
If you want to change policies:
First of all, get active in state and local elections. Know your member of congress and your senator. Find out what their plan is to address domestic violence and homelessness, if they have a plan at all. Then gather constituents and make your case for policy development and reform for survivors of domestic violence. Do the same for national level policies.
Join APA’s Federal Action Network for alerts on these and other important issues.
If you are a provider who works with survivors of IPV:
Know the signs of abuse. Support your client whether they want to leave their abuser or not. Be prepared to provide resources information such as shelters, crime victims fund, trauma counseling, how to get restraining orders, and how to help their children cope. Allow the survivor to make decisions for their own lives. Most of all advocate for the empowerment of survivors. Make sure to be mindful of power dynamics when working with survivors.
If you have never thought about this issue:
Spread the word about this issue. Help dispel the common myths. Learn more about the reality of homeless survivors of abuse. If there is someone you know who is dealing with abuse in their home, be there to support them in any way you can. Even if it is just being an empathetic listener.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline
National Coalition for the Homeless
National Dating Abuse Helpline
Americans Overseas Domestic Violence Crisis Center
International Toll-Free (24/7)
National Child Abuse Hotline/Childhelp
National Resource Center on Domestic Violence
National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health
1-312-726-7020 ext. 2011
Stephanie Hargrove is a second year clinical psychology doctoral student at George Mason University. She is an alumna of Howard University and has lived in the DC area for nearly 6 years. Stephanie has a passion for advocacy and community service. She has served as an advocate in domestic violence shelters, on the community service committee of the Greater Washington Urban League’s young professional chapter, and as a rape crisis hotline counselor. Stephanie’s research interests are focused on social justice, women’s empowerment, and client centered practices for women who have experienced gender based violence such as intimate partner violence, rape, and human trafficking. Her clinical interests are trauma and personality disorders. Stephanie hopes to utilize her research to inform her clinical work, develop interventions, and influence policy.