Domestic Violence and Homelessness: A Conversation We Should All Be Having
Each year, the National Network to End Domestic Violence [NNEDV] conducts its Domestic Violence Counts survey. In 2017, participating national domestic violence organizations were contacted by 72,245 victims, with emergency sheltering requests present in 77% of requests. Approximately 65% of the petitions for sheltering went unmet. This translates to 7,416 cases where victims attempting to leave their abuser were not able to find emergency shelter.
Funding continues to be a chronic obstacle for organizations that struggle to provide services to those in need of emergency assistance. Programs are often pared back or eliminated altogether due to funding cuts. In a public health field where services are already insufficient, the immediate effect is felt both by the domestic violence organizations and those they serve.
In the 2017 NNEDV survey, organizations also noted that over 1,000 positions were either cut or not filled. Because 62% of these positions were service providers who specialized in sheltering and legal advocacy, many hotline calls and service inquiries went unassisted. How many of these victims ultimately were faced with the impossible choice of returning to their abuser or becoming homeless to avoid going back?
Finding accurate statistics related to domestic violence is challenging, as agencies were not historically required to provide data for subpopulations of the homeless. In January 2018, the PEW Charitable Trusts published an article discussing positive changes being made to questions asked during the Point-In-Time survey conducted by Continuum of Care (CoC) Homeless Assistance Programs (HUD) nationally. Like the NNEDV survey, Point-In-Time collects data for one night.
The survey conducted in January 2017 revealed that 87,329 people reported experiencing domestic violence (timeframe not specified). About 20% of New York City families seeking refuge in a shelter experienced intimate partner violence within a five-year period immediately preceding this. Of those families, domestic violence was noted as a key contributing factor to homelessness in just under 90% of the cases.
Too often, the conditions the homeless endure and the circumstances that led them there are minimized and ignored. The usual response is to assume that a person must be homeless because of a drug or alcohol problem when the underlying issue is far more complicated. In reality, homelessness has no one root cause we can reference.
For some, being homeless was preceded by job loss, a chronic medical condition, or (veterans) not meeting various criteria of the organizations in place to assist them. Others may be afflicted by an array of mental health disorders. Still, others may have repeatedly attempted to seek help but fell through the cracks. Moreover, some, like me, either end up homeless during active abuse because of their abuser’s behavior or when leaving because the domestic violence agencies from which they sought help turned them away due to lack of resources and housing.
In my specific situation, systemic financial abuse led to me being homeless with my abuser after our fourth eviction. The financial abuse started out rather insignificantly; he had moved from out of state and was looking for work in a field where there wasn’t much opportunity. At first, I was comfortable with leaving smaller amounts in case he needed something during the day while I was at work.
Over time, as did all the forms of abuse I endured, the financial abuse escalated. He started demanding money, questioning my spending, and asking me to pay a bill or two late. When I would refuse, he would force me to submit to his will. Other times, we would end up wrestling over my purse because I was trying to keep him from taking my cards from my wallet.
I resorted to hiding my bag, but he eventually found it. One night when I was asleep, he took my debit card and left. When I awoke the next morning and called to check my balance, I was horrified to discover that he withdrew my paycheck and overdrew my account by $1,000. I was forced into a repayment plan despite my objections; when it happened a second time, I was unable to pay it off. They closed my accounts and seized what was in my savings; I was then unable to have an account.
He began running up bills, forbade me to pay others, and started confiscating paychecks. By May of 2009, my landlord evicted us from the first apartment; utility shut offs had already begun. I lost my life insurance because he would not allow me to make the payments.
We were in the second apartment for only one month. The landlord took me to court after I missed the rent payment at the start of the second month. I had the rent in traveler’s checks; my abuser took them out of my purse, forced me to sign, and cashed them. He threatened me not to tell the judge what happened, and as a result, I was mocked during the eviction proceedings.
We lived in the third apartment for a while because the rent was being covered. We still had issues paying utilities, and soon, the rent was no longer being paid. There was no money for even the most basic necessities, and I would have to stand at the kitchen sink scrubbing laundry – including his denim – until my hands bled because there was no money to go to the laundromat. He started selling my property and used me to destroy the bedroom until I gave in and let him take the money from my 401K.
In between the third and fourth apartments, we lived in the car for several months. During the day, when I wasn’t at work, we would go to public parks and spend the entire day there until it was dark. A few of the parks were along a canal and sometimes as I sat there, I imagined myself being enveloped by the murky water and escaping the nightmare that had become my life.
At night we would park overnight at a truck stop and sleep. I felt like a caged animal, trapped in steel and glass with my abuser. Even though we parked under a light, there were always strangers coming and going. I never felt safe. Any time I needed to go to the bathroom, he would follow me in and wait. In the morning, I would take showers in the units they had set up for truckers traveling through – also with him watching, because I was never allowed privacy.
I always worried about losing the car because it had been uninsured so long that the registration was suspended. We had nowhere else to go, and the thought of losing that, too, was a constant strain. I started to feel ashamed of the way I was living and withdrew as much as I could. My co-workers had no idea of my circumstances, and it was several years after I left my abuser before I let any of them know.
Despite being approved for the fifth apartment, it continued to get worse. In total, we had four completed evictions and were on eviction five when I left. I lost everything I owned – all the furniture and everything in the apartment was mine. The car had been impounded the week before I left after he was pulled over for running a stop sign.
When I left the morning of December 14, 2012, I had only the clothes I was wearing and what was in my handbag. I had managed to sneak my card out of his wallet when he was on the phone, but he had already taken the money the night before. The financial damages of that relationship were crushing; he had stolen about $70,000, left massive debts, and caused four evictions, defaulted student loans, and tax liens. I lost everything I owned. In total, I was left with about $200,000 in losses.
The longer I volunteer as an advocate, the more I become aware of how fortunate I was when I left my abuser despite the oppressive level of financial damage I sustained. While my finances were destroyed, I had someone who could take me in. This one thing is all that prevented me from being homeless a second time.
Although financial abuse is finally becoming an integral part of the conversation on domestic violence, homelessness is still very much taboo. Just as domestic violence advocates in the 1970s paved the way for those working in the field today by lifting their voices against abuse, we need to continue to do the same in the present to shed light on experiences that often remain hidden in the darkness. Survivors of domestic violence must continue to break their silence on issues such as homelessness and financial abuse to empower themselves and others to take steps toward independence and freedom.