The statistics are there: domestic violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness in women.* Sadly that probably doesn’t surprise most people. But what if you ask why? Like, really, specifically, why? Someone’s immediate response might be that when survivors have to leave their homes, it’s often fast. Often despite having no plans for their next steps. And that often means they have no money. There’s an affordable-housing crisis. Hence, homelessness.
But why might someone have no well-laid escape plan in place? Why don’t they have the financial means to get housing? The challenge advocates face is that a physical assault and the midnight flight that follows is one of the most common things people think of when they think of domestic violence and the homelessness that follows. But that image only scratches the surface. The truth is that domestic violence is an enduring reality, not an event, and it’s complex and nuanced and entrenched. And so are the reasons it is so closely tied with homelessness.
For Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we’re peeling back the layers to uncover the myriad ways domestic violence can drive victims to homelessness. Here are five major contributors.
1. Chronic Health Conditions.
I’ll start with what might be the most obvious, but is still worth underscoring: the health effects of domestic violence aren’t just from one physical episode and a trip to the emergency room. Survivors suffer for years, even after leaving the relationship. A recent study found 81 percent experience chronic health conditions and between 60 and 90 percent live with significant mental-health issues. The rate of HIV among survivors is astronomical—55 percent of HIV-positive women have experienced domestic violence. Victims contract HIV often because their partners sexually assault them or will not let them negotiate safe sex.
The link between chronic illness and homelessness is two-fold. First, the financial burden of medical treatment—both out-of-pocket expenses and in the form of lost wages for missed work—can make housing cost-prohibitive. In addition, symptoms impede the everyday routines many take for granted, and we do not invest in programs like permanent supportive housing that help chronically ill people access rehabilitative services. That’s even though these programs have been proven to stop the cycle of homelessness.
2. Survivors Can’t Get Housing, Literally.
Housing affordability is of course a huge driver behind survivor homelessness, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Even in cases where victims can afford a place to live, they face discrimination in three main ways. First, domestic violence victims may be evicted because of the crimes committed against them. Landlords may just decide to kick the victim out—as few as six jurisdictions provide victims with recourse if that happens. Worse, eviction is actually government-mandated in some places—under so-called “nuisance ordinances” victims must leave if they call 911 a certain number of times. This discrimination is doubly insidious because it deters victims from calling for help when they are in the middle of an attack.
Second, victims might be refused housing in the first place: surveys and investigations reveal potential landlords routinely deny survivors rentals because of their status as victims of domestic violence. One investigation also found that if not flat-out denied, survivors were offered more unfavorable lease terms and conditions than non-victims.
Finally, because one form of domestic violence is financial sabotage, women may have the cash flow to afford a place, but a poor—or ruined—credit rating. I’ll get to that next.
3. Economic Abuse
Some research indicates that some form of economic abuse exists in as many as 98 percent of abusive relationships. It means that an abuser exerts control by restricting, undermining, or sabotaging a victim’s financial independence. Examples may include denying a partner access to bank accounts, stealing assets, property, or inheritance, controlling how much money the victim has (for example, allotting an allowance), denying a partner the right to work outside the home or attend school, or as I touched on above, ruining a partner’s credit rating so that he or she has trouble finding home or making other investments in the future. Of course the purpose of this kind of abuse is to force the victim to stay—someone who leaves without a bank account may not even be able to pay for a hotel for the night, let alone put down a security deposit for an apartment.
4. Job Insecurity
Domestic violence results in both lost wages and termination. Up to 56 percent of abusers use harassment to threaten a victim’s job security, for example by showing up in the workplace or calling repeatedly. Victims also lose wages for reasons stemming from the abuse—doctor’s visits, court appearances, and relocation, for example. Victims of intimate partner violence lose eight million days of work each year, and between one-quarter and one-half of victims report that they have lost a job due, at least in part, to domestic violence. They often are without recourse—as few as 13 states allow victims to take some form of job-protected leave to deal with the violence.
Survivors also may have trouble getting a job in the first place. As I noted, economic abuse includes denying the victim the right to work or get an education, which has the longer-term effect of making him or her less competitive in the job market. Worse, status as a domestic-violence survivor alone may be enough for an employer to turn an applicant down. As few as six jurisdictions specifically prohibit this type of employment discrimination.
5. Social Isolation
Finally, a devastating consequence of domestic violence is that abusers often isolate victims from a social network that would give not only emotional support but also could facilitate housing accommodations or provide financial help. Abusers may systematically alienate a victim from family and friends, so when ready to leave, he or she has fewer options for places to go. Social isolation also includes cutting off a victim’s access to information—if your cell phone or Internet use is closely monitored or restricted, it’s much harder to line up housing.
Just as the manifestations of domestic violence are myriad and so much more complicated than an episode of physical violence and visit to the ER, so are the reasons so many survivors are homeless. The drivers are physical, emotional, and financial. And they are institutional: victims are excluded from social systems most people take for granted, like equal access to housing, support of friends and family, and fair consideration for employment. Another devastating result of the link is that the threat of homelessness is an all-too-common reason victims stay with their abusers. As advocates, we have to address the concrete financial and physical barriers to housing for these men and women. Equally important, we need to take on the culture of victim-blaming and silence that not only keeps men and women in abusive relationships but also leaves so many of those who escape without a place to live.
Vanessa Wellbery, Government Relations
*This post is written to be gender-neutral—male victims too often are ignored when we talk about domestic violence. However, the connection between domestic violence and homelessness is much stronger with women survivors, so often the statistics I cite—like this one—are female-specific.