A safe home for all DV survivors

We bring you this post by Kendra Gritsch, our Domestic Violence Housing First program specialist, and Marie Sauter, Advisor to the Director, Pacific Northwest Initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, from their blog, Impatient Optimists.

Imagine you live in a home where you don’t feel safe. An abusive partner threatens you and your children – but leaving home means uprooting your child, possibly losing your job, and leaving everything behind. You are stuck: do you choose an unsafe home or no home at all?

Domestic violence has long been a leading cause of homelessness for women and children. Service providers in the domestic violence field are beginning to identify more effective ways to work with survivors of domestic violence who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless – by providing supports specifically tailored to help survivors become safer and more stably housed.

In 2009, the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV) teamed up with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and many other partners to launch a five-year pilot project testing the Domestic Violence Housing First (DVHF) approach to promoting survivor safety and stability. This marked a major change in the way service providers work with domestic violence survivors. Instead of imposing a pre-determined set of services that each person may or may not need, along with a set of conditions that must be met before housing is available, DVHF is a survivor-driven approach that asks the individual what they need right now. Survivors get to decide which services and supports they receive, and choose where they become stably housed.

DVHF includes mobile advocates bringing one-on-one services to locations that are convenient for each survivor, flexible financial assistance, connections to other community services, and landlord engagement to remove barriers to housing. This coordinated approach gets survivors into stable housing as quickly as possible – often bypassing the shelter system – and then provides ongoing support as they rebuild their lives.

Thirteen domestic violence programs across Washington State – urban, rural, and tribal – piloted the DVHF approach, and found that a significant majority of survivors either safely retained current permanent housing or quickly accessed new housing. The housing and support from advocates meant that survivors could get a job, enroll in school, and heal from the violence they had experienced. Safe and stable housing let children be children again, so they could stay in one school, have their own space to do homework, and invite their friends over without fear. With a place to call home, survivors and their children went from surviving to thriving.

We applaud these thirteen pioneering agencies and the many others who have followed their lead in Washington State and beyond. A recent investment of $2 million dollars from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and the U.S. Department of Justice further validates the work of these pioneers by supporting WSCADV in collaborating with Dr. Cris Sullivan to conduct research that seeks to demonstrate what we’ve learned: DVHF prevents homelessness and increases safety and stability for parents and children who are domestic violence survivors.

Survivors seeking services from four agencies in King County and Yakima County (LifeWire, New Beginnings, YWCA of Yakima and Lower Valley Crisis and Support Services) will be invited to participate in a longitudinal study to better understand how DVHF services can optimize housing stability for survivors and their children. Armed with this research, the domestic violence field will be better positioned to forge new alliances with housing/homeless service providers and attract new resources to support their evidence-based DVHF services.

Every person deserves a safe place to call home. This research will advance our knowledge of what it takes to get us there.

Doing nothing is the worst choice

Someone asked me if the current national conversation about sexual assault is helping our organization with increased interest or support. The answer is, not really. And I think the reason is that it’s hard for human beings to connect individual responsibility with community responsibility.

Often, I get supportive comments when I say that I am employed at a non-profit that works to prevent domestic violence. The term “domestic violence” can have different meanings; but usually people tell me that they believe that violence is rooted in individual behavior and poor choices. They don’t see what I see―that preventing violence requires, in part, government policies that support safe, affordable, accessible housing, child care subsidies and a livable wage for everyone. I guess it all sounds too impersonal and far away from daily life. And, yet, it matters. And it follows then that who is on the Supreme Court matters also. And who is in charge of Health & Human Services. If how you treat people does matter, than our leaders’ behavior and ideas matter.

I hear people say it is hard to vote at all with two imperfect presidential candidates. But this election reminds me of the importance of voting. People who came before me literally died for my right to vote. And, the right to vote is facing increased restrictions across our nation. Maybe your ability to vote isn’t restricted, but it could be happening to someone else in your community.

This October is Domestic Violence ACTION Month. Having a conversation with my children about the potential for abuse happening to them or their friends can be overwhelming. But, just like with voting, doing nothing is the worst choice. It is always harder to make things better after the worst happens. Exercising your right to vote and starting a conversation with your children about domestic violence are actions that matter. Your actions can be part of preventing more bad things happening and creating a world we all want to live in.

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If you’re going to lean in, you need support

baby-diapers-and-wipesJust as I was beginning my career, Lean In was becoming popular. In true lean in spirit, I was told to pursue my ambitions, ask for more, and change the conversation to what I could do, instead of what I couldn’t. I totally bought into the idea that if I put my mind to it I could (and should) do everything in full force.

Then I had a child.

Beyond the baby shoes, ducky washcloths, and teeny tiny onesies, it turns out taking care of an infant is a LOT of work. Even with my husband right by my side, the majority of the care landed on me after he returned to work.  Soon enough I found myself exhausted, overwhelmed, and disconnected. Even if I could do it all, maybe I didn’t want to?

There is no denying the level of pressure women feel on a daily basis to be a certain kind of mother, partner, friend, and professional. I’m all about encouraging women to ask for what they deserve but expecting women to be more, do more, and lean in more is not always sustainable.

I wish we would stop asking women to do more and instead ask ourselves what we can do to give women more choices. And not just choices but also the resources and support to make choices work, like how to end an unhealthy relationship without losing your housing, how to stay in a career but still be able to spend time with the ones you love, and how and when to start a family.

We don’t need to pressure ourselves to lean in, we need people and resources that support us to make the choices that are best for ourselves.

“Why don’t victims just leave?”

I recently wrote this guest column for publication in Sound Publishing community newspapers.

nomoreThose of us who work at domestic violence programs hear this question all the time. The truth is, they do. Every day we hear from survivors of abuse who were able to find the support and resources they needed to be safe and self-sufficient.

Every day we also hear from people who are unable to leave because they fear the abuser will be more violent if they do. This fear is very real. According to the Washington State Domestic Violence Fatality Review, in at least 55% of homicides by abusers, the victim had left or was trying to leave.

Many people are unable to leave an abusive relationship because they have nowhere to go. Our communities don’t have enough affordable housing, and shelters and transitional housing units are limited. On just one day last year, domestic violence programs in Washington could not meet 267 requests for housing. People often stay with or return to an abusive partner because they don’t have the money to support themselves or their children.

We also hear from people who don’t want to leave, but want the abuse to stop. Research consistently shows that people in an abusive relationship make repeated efforts to be safe and self-sufficient, but there are many barriers—both external, such as limited resources or support; and internal, such as an emotional connection to their partner or a desire for their children to be with both parents—that makes this very difficult.

But here’s the thing: This is absolutely the wrong question to be asking, as it implies that victims are responsible for ending violence. They aren’t. Instead, we should be asking what we can do to stop abusers from being violent and controlling.

News you can relate to

Some news stories that caught our eye this week:

Researchers observing people’s behavior in bars found no relationship between men’s aggressiveness and their level of intoxication. Instead, they found that men were targeting women who were intoxicated.

One of my favorite websites—Scarleteen: Sex ed for the real world—isn’t making enough money to stay afloat. So they’re going on strike. Wait, how do you go on strike if you’re self-empl0yed?

It’s been a big week in our state legislature, with much to celebrate and much to stress about. In the good news category ESHB 1840—which prohibits abusers with a Protection Order against them from possessing a firearm—passed unanimously! This is an important step in making these orders more effective for survivors of abuse. But survivors also need housing to be safe and stable. Thanks to Senator Steve Hobbs for sharing with the Seattle Times how funding cuts to housing will have a devastating impact on survivors.

Another thing survivors of abuse need to be safe and stable? Food, diapers, toothpaste. Now who would possibly take issue with that? Jon Stewart will tell—or rather show—you.

Preventing homelessness

We bring you this post from Kendra Gritsch, our Domestic Violence Housing First program specialist.

Did you know that domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness for women and children? Women often face isolation, discrimination, and limited resources when leaving an abusive home. Because of this, many survivors are forced to choose between stable housing and safety.

To eliminate housing as a reason to stay in an abusive relationship, WSCADV and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation partnered to pilot Domestic Violence Housing First (DVHF). Our partner programs across Washington State are helping survivors get and stay in safe, permanent housing by providing things like flexible financial assistance. Then, advocates have the flexibility to provide whatever kind of support the person needs to be self-sufficient.

After three years of doing and learning, we are beginning to capture the impact of this approach. The YWCA of Kitsap County found: “we had to learn how to listen … and how to celebrate who they (survivors) were and maybe back up a little about what the YWCA is.”

Domestic violence and the Housing First model

This was originally posted on the National Alliance to End Homelessness blog.

I’ve been working on Domestic Violence Housing First for a couple of years now. But I also have a lot of experience working with immigrants. In general, I’ve found that trying to address the needs of immigrant survivors by just tweaking a mainstream system isn’t enough. One of my favorite things about Domestic Violence Housing First is that the flexibility of the housing first model allows individually tailored services that encompass a person’s culture as well as their unique needs and situation.

For example, one of the pillars of our work in Domestic Violence Housing First has been tailored, mobile advocacy. This approach involves an advocate visiting a survivor’s home rather than requiring the survivor to visit an advocate’s office. So we were caught off-guard when an advocate from a provider serving immigrants told us that her version of tailored, mobile advocacy sometimes meant inviting survivors to her office. Initially, that didn’t make sense to me.

Turns out, one immigrant she works with prefers to meet at her office, and with Domestic Violence Housing First money, the advocate can cover her transportation costs to get there.

This advocate shared that in that the immigrant survivor’s culture, it would be considered rude for the survivor not to provide food or drinks for a meeting at her home. When survivors are focused on retaining their housing, the cost of being hospitable can cause pressure and stress. So the advocate focused on making her office hospitable and their meetings comfortable. This was a great reminder to me of how important it is not to get locked into any one way of doing things. We are practicing a philosophy in which we learn to cater to the individual needs of survivors.

Survivors tell me that the tailored services that advocates provide has allowed them to regain a sense of dignity,  while advocates report that the flexibility of this model has empowered them to listen to survivors and offer support that meets the needs of the person in front of them.

Reproductive justice

We rarely talk about unintended pregnancy as one of the consequences of domestic violence. But of course it is. Rape and coerced sex are a very, very common part of survivors’ experience. Most of us assume that pregnancies are either intended or “accidents.” But that doesn’t account for the kind of rape that happens in abusive relationships, or the host of tactics batterers use to control when and how their partners get pregnant: forcing her to have unprotected sex; pressuring her to get pregnant; refusing to use condoms; sabotaging her birth control.

According to the CDC, 1 in every 21 women in the U.S. has had a partner try to get her pregnant against her will. Women and teen girls with abusive husbands or boyfriends are five times more likely than other women to get pregnant when they don’t want to be. These are not accidents—there is no better way for an abuser to secure the financial and legal bonds that make it much more difficult to leave safely and nearly impossible to leave completely.

Recent political conversations about “legitimate rape” are willfully ignorant not just of medical science, but of women’s experience. Women choose abortion for many complex reasons, among them rape and battering. For some women, ending a pregnancy is the safest and most life affirming choice they can make. Access to abortion and emergency contraception is fundamental. But it is not enough.

Reproductive justice means defending women’s control over their own bodies and at the same time fighting for the resources communities need to support families. A woman can’t truly have free choice without the conditions that allow her to raise a child with dignity: relationships free from violence and coercion, quality health care, economic opportunity, access to education, safe and affordable housing, strong neighborhoods, clean water and air. We should channel some of our anger over politicians’ comments about rape into demanding policies that value all women, children, and families.

Universal domestic violence care

Wow! I am so inspired by all the neato stuff we’re working on with our partners across the state―from Building Dignity in our emergency shelters, to focusing on Housing First, to helping ensure there are protections for ALL victims, and also working to prevent domestic violence.

Yeah! This is the new wave of our collective work.

This feels like a time of many changes, a time of re-thinking old ways and imagining new ways, and a time of expanding―even as budgets and resources shrink. It’s hard, it’s hectic, it’s complicated…and it’s time.

I like to think of us―as a movement, as a community, as a country―as moving towards Universal Domestic Violence Care, a spectrum of services and supports to help people end abusive dynamics and create healthy, nurturing, equitable relationships.

In our healthcare system, we have emergency rooms―and those will always be necessary, because emergencies will always happen. But, we also have community clinics, and primary care providers, and specialists. We have places and services for people dealing with a short-term problem and also for those who are managing serious and chronic conditions. All these pieces are needed to help people be healthy and well.

We know that victims of abuse need emergency shelter and legal protections. But we know they also need more. We are steadily expanding the types of help available for survivors, their children, and for abusers. Just like with healthcare, we have recognized that prevention and early detection are a better approach than waiting until things become a crisis.

Ending homelessness

This was originally posted on the National Alliance to End Homelessness blog.

I’m currently at the National Conference on Ending Family and Youth Homelessness in Los Angeles, where a lot of creative thinkers are sitting together, learning from each other, and sharing creative solutions to reach the common goal of housing families and youth in the right way and the shortest amount of time.

There seem to be a few points emerging:

  • Shift program-based thinking to systems-based thinking. Systems, and not just programs in isolation, must address issues including the lack of affordable housing, limitation of shelter space, and long waiting lists for public housing. The key is to form inclusive partnerships which employ effective strategies to change the way a homeless assistance system responds to families in crisis.
  • Track and use data to your advantage. Data is the cornerstone of evaluation; without it, we cannot understand the performance of the system and whether the system is meeting the goals of the program.
  • Rapid re-housing/prevention works for the majority of families. It’s not just about housing; it includes wraparound services. The services may be “light touch services” (where someone needs assistance to pay off an old debt) whereas others may need advocacy from beginning to end.

We, as domestic violence advocates, cannot ignore the issues of homeless families, just as housing advocates cannot ignore the fact that domestic violence and sexual assault, as well as domestic sex trafficking, impacts the ability to gain and retain safe and stable housing.

I am extremely energized by the positivity and creativity, as well as the commitment that everyone has to end homelessness on a national level. Thank you, National Alliance to End Homelessness for hosting this conference.