Domestic violence is a driver of homelessness
Graphic via Denzel Boyd for COURIER

Research shows between 22% and 57% of all women experiencing housing insecurity point to abuse as the “immediate cause” of their situation.

When the COVID-19 crisis began and states issued stay-at-home orders, domestic violence advocates became worried. People who were experiencing abuse by their partners were now forced to stay home with those very partners. The already under-reported epidemic of intimate partner violence (IPV) would skyrocket under such stressful conditions, advocates warned. 

The data thus far shows they were right. In April 2020, when lockdown restrictions started lifting, the National Domestic Violence Hotline reported a 15% increase in calls compared to April 2019. A study at a major Massachusetts hospital also found a significant jump in women who self-identified as victims of domestic abuse seeking emergency care this year.

Now, nearly eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic, countless organizations, including The Hotline, say they’re expecting a significant wave of people needing assistance after leaving  violent homes—and finding a safe place to go is a top concern.

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One of the biggest drivers of homelessness among women is domestic violence: Research shows between 22% and 57% of all women experiencing housing insecurity point to abuse as the “immediate cause” of their situation. 

Between that, and a looming eviction crisis brought on by a lack of preventive policy, domestic violence victims are facing unprecedented barriers to safety, and the general election on Nov. 3 might determine exactly how the country navigates this wave. In contrast to unclear legislation and muddled definitions by the Trump administration, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has extensive plans to build on the landmark Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)—and that includes making housing more accessible to victims. 

“Biden has taken the lead on this VAWA plan from the very beginning,” Columbia School of Social Work’s Louisa Gilbert told COURIER. “It’s made a huge difference in our field.”

Securing a safe place to go in order to leave an abusive relationship is one of the top reasons why people reach out for help—yet, it’s a need that too often goes unmet. As one North Dakota advocate shared in the National Network to End Domestic Violence’s 14th annual survey released in March: “Our housing program is at capacity, and the housing authority’s waitlist is more than 1,000 people long. Survivors are choosing between having a place to stay and putting food on the table. There simply aren’t enough resources for those in need.”

Extending What It Means to Provide Housing

One of the ways Biden aims to build on what VAWA has accomplished so far is expanding the safety network for survivors, with special attention to housing. Establishing a coordinated housing initiative across federal agencies for emergency shelter and boosting short- and long-term housing assistance will pave the way for survivors to become economically independent from their abusers; as Gilbert points out, people often return to violent environments they’ve left because they have no place to go.

The plan also provides cash assistance, specifically allocating funds for everyday needs like child care, purchasing a laptop, or transportation to jobs or interviews. This approach, which is often met with skepticism in America’s economic systems, is proven to be the most effective, according to Gilbert.

“The research really shows that [if] you have this emergency cash assistance to help stabilize people, this is really cost-efficient in the long run,” she said, noting that from a basic humane angle, there should be no question that this is the right thing to do. “IPV has serious long-term health commitment. There is a cost-efficience to providing emergency cash assistance upfront along with housing assistance to get people experiencing this on the flight path to stabilization.”

This real, logistical assistance, including child care and employment assistance, also corrects a punitive approach that leaves many people exiting violent living situations feeling like they’ve left their lives behind altogether. 

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In an essay for The Lily, an unnamed woman shared how challenging it was to walk away from her 21-year marriage during the pandemic and move into a shelter. “At first,” she writes, “I thought I was a hero who saved her husband from himself and who rescued her family, but hours later, in the rented basement where we stayed, and many miles away from the apartment we left, I started crying.”

By “embracing” people who have experienced IPV as visible, cared for members of the community they chose to live in, Gilbert said Biden’s plan may help a person leaving abuse continue to stay and grow in their community, rather than feel “warehoused out,” a term she used to mean placed out of sight. 

This sort of housing solution, while technically providing shelter, often leaves people in need of assistance in a sort of purgatory, with pressure to exist without being a “burden” to their community, as opposed to being embraced by those they’re living near. Especially in cases where people are seeking housing to escape private violence, this approach creates a new barrier in a culture that already refuses to look many of the problems that lead to homelessness in the eye.

The most effective approach to addressing housing for survivors, Gilbert explained, sends a clear message to those using assistance: “We embrace you, you’re one of us, we don’t warehouse you out.”

Biden’s plan helps fill in gaps that can bring our current approach closer to this method of solving problems with compassion over compression. 

“It’s very thoughtful in its comprehensiveness, in terms of the myriad of services,” she said, noting that the plan is also unique in how much attention it draws to marginalized groups that have historically been “left out” of the conversation, including people from LGBTQ communities, transgender women, and people from tribal and indigenous populations.

The Need for Better Data

Still, to truly tackle the housing element of the domestic violence crisis, Gilbert said the United States needs better data collection. 

What we do know, according to current research, is that one in three women and one in four men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Over the span of a single year, more than 12 million women and men are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by someone they care about.

“IPV cuts across every single social demographic, but it’s not evenly spread across,” Gilbert  explained. “We’re suffering from a lack of surveillance data that goes beyond survey data.”

In order to track how a community should respond to IPV, neighborhood data is crucial. IPV is most prevalent between the ages of 18-34, with adolescent violence going largely untracked altogether. And, as Gilbert pointed out and studies confirm, police departments, which purport to provide data around what is technically a crime, are far more likely to escalate a situation, or create more fear, than be a useful part of the solution. 

This is especially true among Black women, whom Gilbert said are rightfully less likely to call the police for help at all, for fear of further harm or even death. A reimagined set of resources for people to call in domestic violence situations is crucial, she continued, not only in immediate assistance, but in finding the root of these problems and stopping IPV before it begins or reaches a critical level. 

“We can’t have these hidden populations,” Gilbert said of the lack of data. “We need to see what it looks like. If it’s hidden, it doesn’t exist. That process of naming it—that is so important.”

According to a 2017 report from the National Alliance for Safe Housing, open communication between survivors of domestic violence and organizations helping to remove them from unsafe situations is crucial in successful safe housing. A true consideration of survivors’ needs, likely brought on by open communication, also ranked as a priority. 

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Without clear communication and trust, the current system can also create chaos that feels unsafe. In a recently published study about the difficulties people face trying to access resources after leaving domestic violence shelters, one 44-year-old Latina woman told researchers that her biggest concern was safety. “I never know if he’s going to find out where I am,” she said. “I’m in a different apartment but in the same building and you know people have big mouths so he might be able to find me.”

Much like tracking COVID hotspots, the functions exist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to examine where services are most likely needed. This, Gilbert said, is why the multi-level approach, including such detailed federal planning, is crucial. And while the current relief climate, which stresses immediate funding for emergency housing through efforts like the widespread mutual aid approach, has been essential in a period of so few resources, active policy is the most effective way to genuinely provide at all needed levels. 

Any plan that does more than ask people to leave and start over is promising to Gilbert. 

“[Emergency housing] is an important Band-Aid, but that’s only one piece of the puzzle,” she said. “We can’t warehouse this problem. It’s way too prevalent. It’s in all of our communities. There is no community without it—there are just some hit harder.”

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