During Domestic Violence Awareness Month, it’s important to reflect on how housing and shelter service providers can best promote safety for their clients. It’s clear that shelter ALONE is not enough: housing is critical.
Domestic violence emergency shelter programs provide life-saving services: a confidential location where survivors can be safe from harm. And a place where they can heal until they’re able to safely return to their own home or secure new housing.
The affordable housing crisis interferes with this model.
Some survivors do not require (or desire) the safety and support shelter programs offer, but they lack the economic resources to avoid a shelter stay. Without the income of their abusive partner, a survivor may not be able to afford to pay the rent on their own. The cost of making their housing secure (or repairing damage done by the abuser) may be out of reach for some survivors. Others may wish to immediately find new housing but lack the financial means needed.
Other survivors enter emergency shelter programs for safety and support but remain in them long after they wish to exit due to a lack of resources to secure new housing.
As a result, domestic violence shelters are accommodating more survivors for longer periods of time. This interferes with programs’ capacity to respond quickly for other survivors fleeing domestic violence who desperately require the safety and support the programs provide.
Fortunately, domestic violence providers increasingly have new tools to help survivors address their housing needs.
The Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, successfully piloted the Domestic Violence Housing First model. This approach couples flexible financial assistance with trauma-informed, survivor-driven advocacy and community engagement. The availability of flexible financial assistance with skilled advocacy support helped some survivors retain their own housing or move immediately into new housing, avoiding the need for a shelter stay. It helped other survivors move out of shelter programs as soon as they desired, because resources were on hand to help them pay for housing.
A significant amount of research, advocacy, and technical assistance support is being dedicated to flexible financial assistance and it’s potential to help survivors reconnect to and retain their housing. This work has already led to new state-level commitment of resources to respond to the housing needs of survivors with flexible financial assistance:
- The Victim of Crime Act (VOCA) is increasingly being used to support flexible financial assistance to promote housing stability for survivors.
- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) provides $16.9 billion of federal funding annually to states to support low-income families. This is also being used to respond to urgent housing needs of homeless families, including survivors with children.
There are obvious parallels between flexible financial assistance and Rapid Re-housing. Rapid re-housing helps people transition quickly out of homelessness through housing search assistance, temporary financial assistance to pay for rent and move-in expenses, and case management.
Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of rapid re-housing for families and veterans. The same techniques, coupled with knowledge in providing trauma-informed, survivor-driven advocacy support, will likely prove just as effective in serving survivors of domestic violence already experiencing homelessness.
To help fund this work, The National Network to End Domestic Violence and its partners (including the Alliance) support a $50 million federal investment for rapid re-housing for domestic violence survivors in the HUD budget, which is currently under consideration by Congress. These funds can also be used to promote long-term temporary housing coupled with rapid re-housing, or to improve coordination between domestic violence and homeless service systems. (Funds from last year’s appropriation will soon be awarded to local providers and thousands of survivors will receive targeted re-housing assistance to escape homelessness.)
Paying attention to the housing needs of survivors is critical. When survivors don’t have help to retain or secure housing, shelters cannot work as they are intended. Without access to safe shelter, people remain in violent and dangerous situations. Without access to a way out of shelter — back into safe housing — survivors are in danger of prolonged homelessness or returning to an abusive partner.
What Can You Do?
- Educate Congress. Domestic violence organizations have been a critical partner in advocating for more affordable housing and for homeless policies that will make a difference in preventing and ending homelessness for all. More voices are needed so that Congress gets the message: We need more affordable housing, and we need greater investments in solving homelessness.
- Educate state leaders. Ensure that VOCA and TANF resources are committed to helping domestic violence survivors and others avoid and escape homelessness by educating key state-level decisionmakers about the importance and effectiveness of flexible financial assistance and rapid re-housing to address housing needs. Some states have already invested in using TANF resources to solve the urgent housing needs of families experiencing homelessness, but many more could do so.
- Improve local coordination and innovation. Both homeless and domestic violence providers can work to improve their cross-system partnership and collaboration to more effectively meet the crisis and permanent housing needs of survivors.
Helping survivors meet their housing needs promotes safety. Housing is safety.