What We Need to Know About Domestic Violence

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In New York City on any given night, almost 15,000 adults and children are homeless due to abuse by an intimate partner. Since October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month and November is National Homelessness Awareness Month, it's an ideal time to reflect upon the connection between domestic violence and homelessness.

Family homelessness is a growing problem nationwide—with more families living doubled up, in cars and vans, motels, and shelters, and a significant portion of the family homeless population is comprised of domestic violence victims. A November 2014 report by the New York City Independent Budget office identified “domestic violence” as second only to “evictions” as a generator of family homelessness.

Homelessness and domestic violence together exact a huge cost on our society.

Homeless shelters cost significantly more than permanent housing without providing any of the same benefits to their users. Homeless individuals and domestic violence victims are more likely to interact with the police, the criminal justice system, and hospital emergency rooms.

Homeless children, meanwhile, are less likely to attend school or to receive consistent medical care and are more likely to have physical and mental health problems. Because of the dual stigmas of poverty and homelessness, they are less likely to realize their potential as adults and more likely to continue the cycle of poverty. Children who have been exposed to domestic violence have a greater probability of becoming batterers or victims of abuse as adults.

While crisis shelter is important, it is not a long-term solution to the problems facing low-income survivors and their children.

In New York City, which has one of the largest specialized shelter systems for domestic violence survivors, far too many victims find themselves homeless and still at risk of abuse after a relatively short shelter stay—a discouraging outcome given the city's significant investment in shelters. Many victims and their children find themselves doubled up with relatives and friends, seeking entrance to the general homeless system, or back with their batterers.

Permanent housing is the critical need that must be addressed if low income survivors and their families are to achieve long-term stability and safety.

For survivors with some economic resources or with the capability to become self-supporting, rapid rehousing may be the most cost-efficient and beneficial way for them to leave a dangerous situation. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has recognized rapid rehousing as an important tool for preventing or reducing homelessness. Providing survivors with assistance—including short-term rental subsidies—to find and qualify for existing affordable housing is a model that has been implemented in several parts of the country with positive results.

The success of this model depends upon linkages to landlords who have affordable housing and are willing to accept applicants, a mechanism for pre-screening and referring applicants, and the availability of voluntary support services once applicants are placed in housing.

For many homeless low-income domestic violence survivors, most of whom have children, success in permanent housing will require access to on-site services to help them remain stable and violence-free in their housing. Survivors often have never lived on their own, are socially isolated, and are still struggling with the trauma of abuse—as are their children.

Maintaining permanent housing—always a challenge for low-income households—is even more difficult for previously homeless victims of domestic violence who, after a short stay in shelter, find themselves in a new section of the city with no social network, while still involved with court cases and child custody issues.

Supportive housing—permanent housing with on-site services—has been successfully used for over 20 years to help chronically homeless individuals with disabling medical conditions remain stable in permanent housing. While the cost of providing intensive on-site services is high, advocates of this model have successfully argued that supportive housing is much less expensive than the cost to the public of homeless individuals who drain resources from emergency rooms, the police, the criminal justice system, and homeless shelters.

Supportive housing can be tailored to address the wide range of issues that victims of domestic violence confront.

An example of what works is the affordable rental housing provided by my organization, the New Destiny Housing Corporation, a New York City nonprofit that works to end the cycle of violence for low-income families at risk of homelessness and domestic violence by connecting them to safe, permanent housing and services. Since 1994, Destiny has developed ten permanent housing projects with units set aside for homeless domestic violence victims and their children. The essential elements of our service-enriched housing model can easily be replicated elsewhere.

They include:

  • A mix of populations—homeless domestic violence survivors and individuals and families from the general population—that does not stigmatize survivors and contributes to a non-institutional environment;
  • Voluntary services that are client-centered and adapted to the needs of individuals and families who have experienced domestic violence;
  • A focus on housing stability, safety, and rebuilding social networks; and
  • Flexibility in adjusting services as needs change over time.

Given the diversity among victims of abuse, no single housing type will work for all homeless domestic violence survivors.

Rental subsidies, set-asides in public housing and in publicly funded new construction, and supportive housing are all necessary to reduce homelessness caused by domestic violence.

But there should be little doubt that permanent housing linked to voluntary supports remains the key service that homeless domestic violence survivors and their children need in order to move beyond crisis to long-term stability and security.

Carol Corden is Executive Director of New Destiny Housing Corporation in New York City. She welcomes comments from readers.

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