Written by Rob Murphy, MSW
Prior to the early 1970’s, few resources existed for women trapped in violent relationships, other than an informal network of people who accepted fleeing survivors into their homes. This underground movement led to the creation of the first domestic violence shelter programs. The new shelters programs struggled initially to find funding, as outdated ideas about domestic violence prevented survivors in shelters from being considered “homeless” by federal definition.
Cracks in that glass ceiling developed as states began to fund domestic violence programs through marriage license fees, and it was finally shattered at the federal level in 1984 with the passage of the Family Violence and Prevention Services (FVPSA) act; other resources slowly followed. Locally, a result of this was the incorporation of Advocates for Victims of Assault as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 1985, after serving in a more grassroots capacity for several years. The first Advocates shelter was opened in 1996.
A limitation of the shelter movement has always been that shelters are meant for short-term, emergency stays. However, the economic and other effects of abuse are such that survivors are often left with no choice but to return to violent relationships in order to avoid continued homelessness. It is estimated that more than 80% of homeless women with children have experienced domestic violence prior to their homelessness. In as many as half of cases, domestic violence is a primary cause of homelessness. In how many other cases, we are left to wonder, are more immediate causes such as poverty, mental illness, and substance abuse ultimately connected to past domestic abuse?
Beginning in the 1990’s, and continuing today, demand for services has forced shelter programs into difficult positions. First, when shelters become overcrowded, triage is often employed that prioritizes survivors determined to be in the most immediate danger, or makes fairly subjective judgements about whether a person’s homelessness is directly connected to domestic violence, or is due to other circumstances. Those turned away often return to violent relationships or otherwise enter or continue a cycle of homelessness for which a major contributing factor was having been made a victim of abuse.
Second, a nationwide (and local) dearth of affordable housing means that survivors shelters have woefully limited options when it comes to moving out of shelter. Again, the results can be a return to violence and/or a cycle of homelessness. Locally, this has become an equal if not greater problem than lack of emergency shelter capacity.
Advocates for Victims of Assault is actively working to create more housing solutions for survivors. We are planning a re-start of in-house transitional housing assistance that was previously discontinued due to lack of funding, and collaborating with local partners to create other opportunities on a household-by-household basis. This is not enough under current conditions. It is our duty as members of this community to protect victims of violence, and we cannot claim to do so if we do not provide opportunities for them to stably and affordably house themselves. Let’s not allow specious arguments about the supposed nature and character of affordable housing recipients, or about the appropriate level of involvement of this or that government or corporate entity, to divert us from our responsibility to assist our neighbors, clients, employees, and constituents. Like it or not, to do so helps perpetuate cycles of violence, and stops the work of those trying to reduce or eliminate the effects of violence on this community in its tracks. Instead, let’s focus on making the most of the significant resources and opportunities that have been laid out before us.