For domestic violence survivors, homelessness can be fear, reality
New Horizons Domestic Violence Shelter Featured in New Haven Register
NEW HAVEN — For a year, the #MeToo movement has been a subject of worldwide discussion for its focus on how abusers exploit power dynamics, but another social media hashtag popularized in 2014 — #WhyIStayed — has been used to convey how difficult it is to leave abuse.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, a time to draw attention to issues faced by victims; for many survivors, leaving domestic violence situations can pose many problems. Domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness for women and children and 63 percent of women experiencing homelessness report experiencing intimate partner violence as adults, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
“It is a bit of a silent issue,” said Kellyann Day, CEO of New Reach, a New Haven-based nonprofit that provides emergency shelter and rapid rehousing.
“If someone has an active domestic violence situation, they’re not directed to traditional homeless shelters, it’s to domestic violence shelters,” Day said. “However, the majority of women who come into homeless shelters in the Greater New Haven area have a reported history of violence.”
Day said, on average, families move four times in the 18 months before they end up at a domestic violence shelter.
The state’s safe houses for domestic violence survivors, however, are overcrowded.
Karen Jarmoc, CEO of Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Wethersfield, said those shelters are at 122 percent capacity year-round.
“These are very complex situations, and sometimes they are taking longer to navigate,” she said. “What we’re doing is working very collectively with housing partners in the state to develop strategies in all areas, from transitional housing to rapid rehousing and diversionary approaches so someone doesn’t view coming into shelter as their only option.”
According to the most recent CCADV data, 2,055 people were served by domestic violence shelters in the 2018 fiscal year, 918 of them children. About 52 percent of those children were 6 years old or younger. The average length of stay was 47.5 days, an 8 percent increase from 2017.
Eighty adults and 112 children lived in transitional living and supportive housing, programs designed to give individuals a place to live with paid rent and utilities for up to two years as they look to stabilize their living situation, reported CCADV. The nonprofit organization was founded in 1978, according to its website.
In 2014, the CCADV partnered with the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness to avoid having a competition between the agencies for limited resources.
“There truly is a need, and it’s a unique need, with survivors of domestic violence and the need for housing,” Jarmoc said. “How do we keep victims safe without necessarily having shelter be the only option?”
Jarmoc said CCADV recently applied for a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant that would fund rapid re-housing services, an intervention that gives people stable housing and provides them with services and supports with the goal of long-term housing for domestic violence survivors.
Not all people with experience being homeless believe rapid rehousing is a panacea, though. Claudette Kidd, a formerly homeless New Haven resident, said she sees rapid rehousing as “giving a taste” of what stable housing can be like before ripping it away.
Kai Belton, executive director of New Horizons, a domestic violence shelter and advocacy nonprofit in Middletown, said leaving a domestic violence situation can be challenging because there is so often financial manipulation.
“The immediate need is safety, so once these individuals are safe, then we help them come up with a plan,” Belton said. “A lot of times these women don’t have access to their own money, so it’s about becoming financially independent. In many cases, if they don’t have jobs or if the abuser was the caretaker, it’s about empowering them to find employment.”
Jennifer Wilson, an assistant professor at Sacred Heart University’s Social Work department in Fairfield, said there is an “interplay” between multiple factors — such as physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse — that can make the transition to housing difficult for survivors. By the time survivors come to the attention of authorities, she said, they are often showing signs of trauma.
“They have feelings of self-doubt, attributions of self-blame, they may feel fearful or shameful in addition to the physiological consequences of trauma, like being hyper-vigilant about safety,” she said.
That hyper-vigilance toward safety and lowered ability to trust means that leaving shelter, even if it means living with an abuser, can make entering the shelter system traumatizing in itself or appear more risky than their current situation.
Wilson said these issues are exacerbated along racial lines, as systemic barriers exist for women of color that are often absent for white women.
“Women of color are less likely to have access to mental health services, so housing is only one piece of the bigger picture for them. They may present to a health care practitioner with trauma symptoms but won’t be properly diagnosed,” she said. “So much lies within the way practitioners approach, diagnose and recommend services, and understanding those barriers and historic oppression comes into play.”
Women of all backgrounds who have survived abuse may also fear or resist intervention from state agencies because they have an instinct to protect their children instead of being separated. Children with exposure to domestic violence also often exhibit signs of trauma as well, Wilson said, and constantly moving a child can negatively impact their mental health.
“You’re also taking a child away from their house, their dog, their neighbors,” Wilson said. “We know that removing a child from exposure to domestic violence is good, but removing them from all that they know can also be really challenging and a tough decision for Mom to make.”
Alicia Woodsby, executive director of Partnership for Strong Communities in Hartford, said procuring affordable housing is a struggle across the state.
“Some of the biggest issues we see are with having flexible dollars that can be utilized to put down security deposits, pay back rent or deal with electricity or child care,” Woodsby said. “Child care is a huge barrier for many families we try to serve in the homeless system.”
With stagnant wages and a higher cost to rent, Woodsby said many of the women served by Partnership for Strong Communities are working two to three jobs to get by.
In a 1991 study of more than 1,000 New York City mothers seeking public assistance published in “American Psychologist,” mothers seeking shelter reported they had already used up many social support systems available to them, with the researchers saying the data reflect how a strong social network can be a crucial element in poor families staying out of the shelter system.
Woodsby noted that one element of abuse often involves isolating survivors from their social networks.
Survivors of abuse can also be reticent to receive support or struggle with eligibility if they have a point of contact with the legal system. A 2017 ProPublica analysis found that Connecticut’s rate of dual arrests — where both parties are arrested for a violent altercation, which often means victims are arrested — is about 18 percent: 10 times the rate of the rest of the nation.
Although legislation was passed this year to reduce the number of dual arrests in the state, advocates say that people experiencing homelessness are still routinely criminalized.
On Wednesday, New Haven couple Sade and Donnie, who live in a homeless encampment, said they are homeless because they slipped through the foster care system and were arrested while growing up in an abusive home situation, respectively. Both said that the shelter system will only accept them if they were to split up, but they are a family unit who do not want to be split up from one another or their dog.
Sade said they are issued fines they cannot pay merely for “existing,” such as having their possessions nearby in public spaces. She said they have known people to be arrested for outstanding tickets that were issued as a result of pat downs.
On a single night in January, 3,383 people experiencing homelessness were counted by the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness in total.
Alison Cunningham, the CEO of Columbus House, which works with the homeless population in New Haven and Middletown, said in May that reducing chronic homelessness — or people experiencing several bouts of homelessness in a short period of time — had been a focus in 2017.
Originally published in the New Haven Register by Brian Zahn, 10/23/18