You wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy. Imagine you have just had one of the most difficult things in your life happen. After experiencing emotional abuse by your partner for some time, they have escalated and have threatened to harm you. You are afraid. You want to – need to leave your home. You call for help and learn that the domestic violence shelter in your area is full (it always is). Your only option is to take your children to a local motel. The motel will be paid for by economic services. This is very helpful for the night or maybe two. Soon though, the motel becomes very difficult. You can’t cook for your young children their so they eat sugary processed foods instead. Because you have a part-time job, economic services asks you to contribute two nights to your weekly motel stay- which at $90 per night limits your ability to save for an apartment of your own. With that $810 each month, you could have saved for a safe place to live. You may lose your part-time job because you can’t get there anymore and you have so many appointments to go to in order to keep your housing at the motel. You fear that your abusive partner will find you because the motels that take economic services funding are widely known. You don’t have transportation and the motel you have been assigned to is remote and you are not able to walk safely to a place to get food – never mind services and supports you need. You are isolated, scared and unsure of any viable options. You start thinking that maybe the only home you knew wasn’t so bad and that you should return there – despite the violence. It could get better right?
This situation is not hard to imagine. After putting people through so many hoops and placing them in problematic circumstances, we wonder why people remain in cycles of violence and homelessness.
Since I became the Executive Director of Umbrella a year and a half ago, I have heard over and over again that housing is one of the main obstacles for survivors of domestic violence. Sometimes, survivors are able to keep the home they are in and are able to pursue legal means to remove their abusive partners. However, this is not always the case – particularly when many people are precariously housed in the first place. This puts many survivors out into homelessness – often with children – and into a homelessness system of care that is profoundly underfunded and to housing stock that largely does not meet their needs.
Last year in the St. Johnsbury and Newport districts combined, approximately 100 households or singles were made homeless because of domestic violence and were housed in our shelters (27) or through local motels (73). In the motels, this represented 1261 motel nights in the St. Johnsbury District and 415 motel nights in the Newport District. The state pays approximately $87 per night to house people in motels. We have to think – is this really the best use of state funds? Are there more efficient and trauma-informed ways to house people safely who are fleeing domestic violence in our community?
We at Umbrella think that there is. We have asked our state partners to allow us to expand our emergency housing to offer more home-like apartments in the community that can provide short-term, safe housing for people fleeing domestic violence. Recognizing success that other domestic violence organizations have had state-wide, the state has agreed to help us do just that. We hope to offer more home-like environments for people who – while still dealing with difficult decisions and options – will now at least be in a confidential location that is accessible to the supports they need.
Housing concerns don’t end after finding emergency shelter though. Finding affordable permanent housing is the goal of all of our shelter clients. Lack of affordable housing can make transitioning from shelter difficult.
This month, Umbrella received a grant from the Office of Violence Against Women for their Transitional Housing program. With funds from the grant program we will be able to support housing and related costs for 45 survivors for up to two years during the three years grant cycle. In our scattered site model, people will be able to choose apartments that work for them as opposed to being limited to a particular housing development. We hope that this program will help many of the people who will be accessing our emergency housing program and beyond.
Our enhanced housing program will hopefully do a lot to help survivors in the NEK for whom housing is a major obstacle to their safety. It will not solve our overall housing availability and affordability problem particularly for low-income community members, but it’s a start.
Amanda Cochrane is executive director of Umbrella.