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Voices / Viewpoint

A whole new range of harms

What happens when domestic violence is added to the difficulty of homelessness?

The Women’s Freedom Center is the local organization in Windham County working to end domestic and sexual violence; this piece is written collectively by the advocates who work there, to whom we give (rare) anonymity in these pages due to the discreet nature of their work. Follow the center’s efforts on Facebook at www.facebook.com/womensfreedomcenter and at www.womensfreedomcenter.net. You can reach an advocate on the center’s 24-hour crisis line at 802-254-6954.

Brattleboro

Anyone who caught the national Homelessness Marathon that was broadcast live from Brattleboro on Feb. 19 was no doubt struck by the courage and thoughtfulness of all the local participants interviewed and was no doubt reminded of our collective need to keep them and their plight from becoming invisible.

But also poignant that night was the resilience and activism of two untelevised guests — a mother and her teenage daughter — with an added barrier to speaking out. They joined the broadcast as voices only, using aliases, sitting close together by a speaker phone in our confidential shelter.

Like so much in today’s culture, homelessness has a gendered aspect. Victims who flee domestic violence are often an undercounted population when we think of the homeless. Yet domestic violence is actually the leading cause of female homelessness.

And among homeless mothers, a national survey found that about a quarter had been physically abused in the previous year alone. Given that one in four women will experience abuse in her lifetime and that affordable housing is already scarce, millions of American women might be compelled to choose between being harmed at home or being homeless.

* * *

Homelessness leaves a woman vulnerable to a whole new range of harms. As was also shared on WVEW that night, a victim of domestic violence faces many compounding challenges beyond lack of housing.

Much of the housing advocacy we do with women isn’t just around locating new resources, but helping them undo the collateral damage of past abuse.

A batterer might long ago have isolated her from any support network, so if she does flee, she might have few places left to turn or might not actually be safe if she couch-surfs in a place that’s familiar.

Add to that the havoc the abuser might have wreaked on a woman’s finances, job record, or even rental history, and she has considerable repair work ahead before she can truly start over.

In fact, landlords who do not know the legal rights of victims sometimes penalize them for the violence, sweeping them up in zero-tolerance-for-crime policies (i.e. evictions), regardless of their innocence.

And while victims have legal recourse for employment or housing discrimination, it’s clearly an added hurdle at an already critical time.

But there’s another and far more lasting toll that violence can take, which becomes glaring when we look at female homelessness overall.

While one woman in three in the broader population will experience domestic or sexual violence in her lifetime, among homeless women that figure rises dramatically to 92 percent who have experienced one or many forms of such violence even if it wasn’t the most immediate cause of their housing problem.

This statistic underscores the cumulative impact of trauma on women’s lifelong coping skills, their mental health, and their survival strategies. It shows that for those in the most dire circumstances, life itself might become one long homelessness marathon, in which the risks of further violence only reinforce that chronic cycle.

* * *

All of these challenges highlight, of course, the tremendous need for adequate and affordable housing for everyone, as well as safe and well-funded shelters for victims in particular.

In Vermont, we have 10 domestic-violence shelters; around the country, we have 1,924. Yet so often, victims still outnumber available beds.

Plus, shelters themselves raise a much broader societal question about why it’s usually victims who must uproot rather than batterers; why it’s more often shelters for women and kids than jail for offenders.

For now, we support and respect the remarkable on-the-air balancing act of “Debbie” and “Cataleya,” who, like countless victims, still navigate a tricky line between starting over and laying low.

Cataleya shared with a national audience what it’s like: not just being a homeless teen in high school — already an enormous challenge — but also having to keep even her new friends from knowing too much about her situation or temporary home.

And given how important social life is to her, as to most teens, it’s had quite an impact on this otherwise-buoyant young woman.

But we’re happy to report some good news.

Several months after coming into our shelter, and many emotional and bureaucratic hurdles later, “Debbie” and her kids just got a new apartment.

This spring they’ll be watching new life sprout up in a small new yard. They’ll decorate new rooms with some of their old treasures, as well as donated items from this generous community.

And they’ll breathe a sigh of relief that at last, their home-sweet-home is a safe home too.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #252 (Wednesday, April 30, 2014). This story appeared on page C1.

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