National Alliance to End Homelessness speech

The following is from a speech given by our Executive Director, Nan Stoops, at last week’s National Alliance To End Homelessness Conference.

My organization has 23 employees working in two locations. Every day, in both offices, we gather at almost exactly noon to eat lunch together. Regardless of how busy and chaotic the day is, we stop, get food, and sit down for an hour of book reviews, parenting follies, fashion advice, recipe sharing, baseball statistics, celebrity gossip, and so on. What started as a simple mealtime ritual has evolved into the centerpiece of our organizational culture and the values we hold for our work.

We all need sustenance and community. They give us life.

In 1977, I began volunteering at King County Rape Relief. In 1982, I was hired for the graveyard shift at New Beginnings Shelter for Battered Women. Those years were a time when I believed that my anger and energy and passion would help bring an end to violence against women.

I did not imagine that I would do this work for 35 years (and counting), nor that it would become as complicated as it has, nor that I would settle for a longer view and for the fact that violence probably will not end in my lifetime. I did not imagine the stories I would hear, the resistance I would encounter, and the fear, degradation, and cruelty I would witness.

I also did not imagine coming face to face with courage, resilience, and the will to live and love against all odds. I did not imagine working with people who personify what had been, for me, an academic understanding of how race, class, and gender intersect in this country. And I never imagined the vision, grace, dignity, and friendships that accompany this work.

My early failures of imagination have been replaced by a continuous cycle of curiosity, learning, and change. Right now, I am extremely curious, because I think change is in the wind. This is a very interesting time in the domestic violence “field.” The economy is bad. The political landscape isn’t much better. The demographics of our service population are fluctuating. And we are challenged by generational realities that include leadership and staff turnover in programs and, more important, the long-term impact of abuse that devastates entire families and communities.

I want to share my thoughts about a question that many of us are pondering. Because I’m not an expert on homelessness, I will stay mostly in the familiar territory of domestic violence. But I believe we have a lot in common, and I hope my thinking will resonate with you.

The question is this:  Do the services we constructed 35 years ago respond to the needs that survivors have today?

35 years ago, domestic violence was a private family matter. Victims were mostly silent and, when they dared to speak, they experienced both blame and shame. There were no laws with which to hold abusers accountable, and hastily organized crisis lines and safe homes were ill-equipped to handle the growing demand.

The original purpose of domestic violence emergency shelter was to provide safety and break isolation. Communal living made sense: women could share meals, take care of each other’s children, and participate in support groups where they could begin to rebuild their lives. They could get on AFDC within two weeks, and many left shelters with welfare checks, food stamps, and medical coupons in hand.

If I sound nostalgic, I don’t mean to. Most shelters were run-down and minimally furnished. Staff were compassionate, but overworked, underpaid, and consumed by the combination of the scope of the problem and continued public apathy. A social worker once said that shelter workers during that time exhibited the same symptoms that Amnesty International attributes to prisoners of war.

Today, in this country, there are more than 3,000 domestic violence shelter and advocacy organizations. When I look at the service models we have now, I am astonished by their complexity. And this is where I think the paths of domestic violence and homelessness really begin to merge or, at the very least, intersect in a big way.

Most domestic violence agencies have multiple funding contracts, each with its own programmatic and administrative obligations. In the name of compliance and efficiency, these obligations often get passed on to survivors in the form of shelter rules and mandatory participation. In the extreme, we hear about survivors returning home because it’s easier to be with an abuser than it is to live in shelter.

The domestic violence shelter population is changing. It’s more diverse in all ways, and it reflects the increasing hardships that people are struggling with; poverty and homelessness, substance abuse and addiction, trauma and PTSD, and entanglements with the child welfare, immigration, and criminal justice systems. This is a challenging, and sometimes volatile mix to house under one roof, and, again, we hear about survivors returning home, or never coming to shelter in the first place.

It may seem like I’m airing our dirty shelter laundry. But the truth is this: it’s time to think critically about the services we offer, and who better to do this thinking than us?

Domestic violence emergency shelter does save lives. It’s a refuge, a resource, and a respite for many. It’s also costly, sometimes chaotic, and almost always, limited in the time, space, and material assistance it can provide. And so, we need to preserve the best of what shelter has to offer and, at the same time, explore and test new strategies.

Here in Washington, we are re-considering shelter in three ways. And three and a half years ago, in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we began a Domestic Violence Housing First project, in which 13 community and tribal based agencies are providing housing support services as an integral part of their domestic violence programming.

When we first started this work, one skeptical director said to me, “since when are we in the business of housing?” I was so surprised by the question that I didn’t know what to say, but in the three years since, we have studied the research, gathered our own data, formed new partnerships, and heard from survivors—all pointing to an answer of “how could we not be?”

I asked our Domestic Violence Housing First staff to help me prepare for today, and they gave me pages and pages of statistics, citations, analysis, and survivors’ stories and quotes, most of it in eight point font. I can’t possibly summarize it all, but let me call out the items that I find most striking and that I believe illustrate how short and straight the line is between domestic violence and homelessness.

Our people are the same:

  • The 2010 Federal Strategic Plan to End Homelessness cites “among mothers with children experiencing homelessness, more than 80% had previously experienced domestic violence.”
  • In the HUD 2012 Continuum of Care Homeless Assistance Program Point in Time count, victims of domestic violence were the largest subpopulation of homeless persons here in Washington State.

The choices are untenable:

  • Domestic violence victims who are mothers will often choose stable housing with violence over unstable housing without violence. Violence directed at children is usually what precipitates leaving the home.
  • Efforts to escape domestic violence can result in loss of job, housing, healthcare, childcare, and access to a partner’s income. In fact, many survivors become homeless either during or after a domestic violence crisis.

Housing stability is essential:

  • Domestic violence coupled with housing instability results in high rates of depression and PTSD. In the SHARE study, the mean PTSD score for the domestic violence survivor population interviewed was equal to or higher than scores of returning combat veterans.
  • Conversely, the SHARE study reported that 18 months of stable housing resulted in dramatic decreases in danger levels for women and children, reduced depression and PTSD, and improved health and quality of life. As one survivor said, “It’s not just housing; it’s a sense of identity.”

These factoids are only a sample of what we have in common. There is so much to learn about the overlapping worlds of homelessness and domestic violence, and the ways that the same people navigate our respective services. We must partner well with each other. As HEARTH Act implementation continues, we need to work together on coordinated entry, resource distribution, and policy advocacy. We can do cross-training and talk about emerging trends, such as the increasing numbers of youth and veterans that need assistance. We can help each other understand how homelessness intensifies danger, and how safety intensifies stability. We can acknowledge how rapid re-housing with individualized support and advocacy is aligned with our fundamental value of self-determination. And we should agree that the whole of our work is greater than the sum of our individual parts.

I want to close by telling you a little bit about my 16 year old son Hanson. Hanson is a creature of habit. He loves routine. During the school year, Hanson’s days go like this. His i-phone alarm goes off at 6:15, he showers and gets dressed, eats the same breakfast of eggs, grits, fruit, and a power muffin, grabs his backpack, and runs to school to practice with the jazz band. He goes to all of his classes—at least I think he does—he runs track and works out, and gets home at 5:00. He does homework, eats dinner, loads the dishwasher, watches a little TV, brushes his teeth, jams his retainer into his mouth, and goes to bed at 9:00 in the same clothes he’s been wearing all day.

That’s what he does. Every day. It’s predictable and mostly unremarkable. Except for this. To him, I’m sure it’s also inevitable. Even though I frequently lecture him about his good fortune, and not taking it for granted, and being responsible, having compassion, and paying forward—to which he replies “yup, yup, yup, yup and yup”—I think he still experiences his day, and everything in it, as inevitable.

You and I know far too many people for whom violence, homelessness, hunger, and loneliness are inevitable. Our work together is about changing that inevitability. It is about making Hanson’s day possible for everyone. It is our challenge and our promise. It is lunch. It is community. It is the boldness to imagine.