By Sarah Fielding
November 1, 2017
In honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we’re shedding a light on the true story of homeless women across America. From the untold circumstances that brought it on, to the lack of trauma care given to them, the odds are stacked against these women. The topic: A look the cycle of domestic violence and homelessness for women — and what we can do to help.
I was cutting through the Times Square subway station one day, running late to work, when I saw a homeless women sitting past the crowd of people, pregnant. For a split second I went over the options in my head. I could take her to Planned Parenthood, buy her breakfast, or just try talking to her. But I was running late, so I did none of those things, instead I ran to my subway and went to work. All day I felt ashamed that I had left this woman to fend on her own when I could have done something to help. I hurried back to the spot at the end of the day, but she was already gone. I don’t know who she was, I don’t know her story, but I do know that she could’ve used my help. Women all over the country are homeless because of a horrible array of circumstances that they never asked for. Women escape the horror of domestic violence only to become homeless far too often — and it’s absolutely heartbreaking.
“Domestic violence is not only the leading type of victimization experienced by women but also a leading cause of homelessness.” Nashville Mayor Megan Barry tells Bustle.
Every October we recognize Domestic Violence Awareness Month as 31 days dedicated to mourning those lost to domestic violence, celebrating the survivors, and connecting the people who are currently working to end violence. Domestic violence is the primary cause of homelessness for women in America, and according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in three women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. While escaping this terror might seem like the key to happily ever after for these women, it doesn’t even come close. With their finances commonly drained and isolation from their community typical, where they’ll go after they escape is often uncertain. The result: Almost 40 percent of domestic violence survivors will end up homeless, be it in a shelter or on the streets. With women making up 85 percent of domestic violence survivors, they are disproportionately affected by its consequences. These women deserve better. They deserve our understanding, our compassion, and our help. As Domestic Violence Awareness Month comes to a close, it’s time to acknowledge the hardships domestic violence survivors face and what can be done to help.
How Domestic Violence Leads To Homelessness
The survivors of abuse span generations, demographics, and genders. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that every minute an average of 20 people are physically abused by their partner in the United States. That adds up to over 10 million instances of abuse a year. The survivors of abuse are left with few options on how to escape their partner’s violence. With limited funds and resources, they often turn to homelessness as a way out. “Every day, survivors of domestic violence are forced to choose between suffering in silence with a roof over their head or being homeless,” Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire tells Bustle. “It is a devastating reality for too many women, and is the effect of a systemic problem we must confront.”
The Barriers To Leaving An Abusive Relationship
It’s easy for an outsider to ask, “Why didn’t they just leave?” The truth is there is no such thing as “just leaving” when it comes to domestic violence. The barriers these women face on the path to creating a better life are monumental.
A 2012 Mary Kay study of 733 domestic violence shelters reporting that 74 percent of women cited economic reasons for staying with their abuser. For those who did escape their abuser, 87 percent were unable to find safe, affordable housing. Without low-income options, it’s all the more costly for women to remove themselves and their children from an abusive situationMSSA, Executive Director, National Council on Homelessness and Child Welfare, Ruth White, tells Bustle. “The reality is because there’s fewer emergency options for women, they’re remaining in these relationships longer and exposing themselves, and their children, to violence,” White says.
With 85 percent of homeless families headed by single women, these women may not have the means to support themselves, let alone their children. It’s common that a woman will try to wait until the end of the school year to escape domestic violence if she has kids White says. If she knows homelessness is the only option, it can be easier to adapt when the children are on a break.
Immigration status is another obstacle some women face. It’s not uncommon for hotlines to get calls from women asking what they can do to escape without being penalized. The Family Justice Center receives calls from survivors terrified because their abuser is threatening to have them deported and they need to know their options.
What To Do If Someone You Know Is Experiencing Domestic Violence
With too many domestic violence survivors ending up homeless, being there in any way you can for someone experiencing domestic violence is critical. As one in three women and one in seven men will be victims of intimate partner violence, there may come a time when someone you know needs your help. DeCarli says that if you’re approached by someone who describes a situation with their partner, and it sounds like an unsafe relationship, the first step is to have a non-judgmental conversation with them about their options and educate yourself on the resources available. If you or anyone else is unable to take them in, a shelter can be a great option for them to consider. There’s a tremendous stigma that equates homelessness to failure, but if moving to a shelter removes them from a harmful situation, it’s a success.
However, for their safety, be wary of approaching a stranger who appears to be in a bad situation. While you may have every intention to help the survivor, Kelly Coyne, Vice President of Domestic Violence Shelters at Safe Horizon, tells Bustle there are cases where intervention hurts rather than helps, meaning the survivor could pay greatly later on. If you do spot a potential case of abuse and want to help, the key is allowing the survivor to steer the conversation. They know the abuser and relationship better than anyone and understand what dialogue may help them feel safe and what may make matters worse.
It’s Time To Hold Abusers Accountable
“I spent my entire career doing domestic violence shelter work and I feel like the question is still always, ‘Why does the survivor stay?’” Coyne says, “Until the question becomes, ‘Why does abuse continue to happen?’ we’re not gonna see that needle move.” It’s time to start holding abusers accountable.
How Education Can Break The Cycle
Homeless women and children are far from the general population’s consciousness, but with families making up one-third of America’s homeless population, their presence must be acknowledged and awareness about the issues they face has to start earlier.
To end the cycle of abuse, focusing the discussion on what healthy relationships look like must start young. “We talk to kids about crossing the road and proper nutrition and all sorts of things,” Coyne says. “But I’m not sure how often with young boys and young girls around healthy relationships, around power and control.”
And youth aren’t the only ones who have the ability to learn. Normalizing the discussion around domestic violence not only helps bring awareness but also reminds the world that it could happen to anyone at anytime. “I think that we should spend a lot more time talking about intimate partner violence and sort of recognizing how pervasive it is in society and stop acting as though it’s this thing that almost never happens,” Coyne says. “I feel like every time I’m talking to people, someone will say, ‘oh that must be so sad, I’m so glad you’re here to help those people’, sort of in quotes. Then when I’m in a room of 10 random women, you start talking about violence and they all have a story.”
How Can You Help Homeless Survivors Of Domestic Violence?
With few places or people to turn to, homeless survivors of domestic violence show amazing strength, but their trials are far from over. They may have children, debt, be unemployed, face mental health issues, etc. As with anyone facing homelessness, they can use your help. Organizations such as Safe Horizon and WIN provide services for homeless women, as well as shelter. These shelters could always use more supplies, hands, and donations. The simplest contributions, like donating toiletries you’ve collected from hotels, could make a difference.
Another way to help out and get to know the families is to volunteer to watch the children of survivors. Without child care, women aren’t able to work and get their family into a stable position. Working to raise awareness, talking to survivors and engaging with their children can make a world of difference, Coyne says.