Putting a face on homelessness -- unless you're hiding


Anyone who caught the national Homelessness Marathon that was broadcast live from Brattleboro on Feb. 19 was no doubt struck by the courage and thoughtfulness of all the local participants interviewed, and was reminded of our collective need to keep them and their plight from becoming invisible. But what was also poignant that night was the resilience and activism of two untelevised guests with an added barrier to speaking out -- a mother and her teenage daughter -- who joined the broadcast as voices only, using aliases, sitting close together by a speakerphone in our confidential shelter.

Like so much in today's culture, homelessness too has a gendered aspect. Victims who flee domestic violence are often an undercounted population when we think of the homeless, yet domestic violence is actually the leading cause of female homelessness. And among homeless mothers, a national survey found that about a quarter had been physically abused in the past year alone. Given that 1 in 4 women will experience abuse in her lifetime, and that affordable housing is already scarce, it means millions of American women may be compelled to choose between being harmed at home, or being homeless, and then vulnerable to a whole new range of harms.

As was also shared on WVEW that night, a victim faces many compounding challenges beyond lack of housing. A batterer may long ago have isolated her from any support network, so if she does flee, she may have few places left to turn, or not actually be safe couch-surfing someplace familiar. Add to that the havoc he may have wreaked on her finances, job record, even rental history, and she has considerable repair work ahead before she can truly start over. In fact landlords who do not know the legal rights of victims sometimes penalize them for the violence, sweeping them up in "zero tolerance for crime" policies, i.e. evictions, regardless of their innocence. And while victims have legal recourse for employment or housing discrimination, it's clearly an added hurdle at an already critical time. Much of the housing advocacy we do with women isn't just around locating new resources, but helping them undo the collateral damage of past abuse.

But there's another and far more lasting toll that violence can take, which becomes glaring when we look at female homelessness overall. While 1 in 3 women in the broader population will experience domestic or sexual violence in her lifetime (hence the name of our column), among homeless women, that figure rises dramatically to 92 percent who have experienced one or many forms of such violence, even if it wasn't the most immediate cause of their housing problem. This underscores the cumulative impact of trauma on women's lifelong coping skills, their mental health, and their survival strategies -- it shows that for those in the most dire circumstances, life itself may become one long homelessness marathon, in which the risks of further violence only reinforce that chronic cycle.

All of this highlights of course the tremendous need for adequate and affordable housing for everyone, as well as safe and well-funded shelters for victims in particular. In Vermont we have 10 domestic violence shelters, and around the country, 1924. And yet so often, victims still outnumber available beds. Plus shelters themselves raise a much broader societal question about why it's usually victims who must uproot, rather than batterers; why it's more often shelters for women and kids, than jail for offenders.

For now, we support and respect the remarkable on the air balancing act of "Debbie" and "Cataleya," who like countless victims still navigate a tricky line between starting over and laying low. Cataleya shared with a national audience what it's like, not just being a homeless teen in high school -- already an enormous challenge -- but also having to keep even her new friends from knowing too much about her situation or temporary home. And given how important social life is to her, as to most teens, it's had quite an impact on this otherwise buoyant young woman.

But in closing, we're happy to report some good news now, which timed nicely with the date for this column. Several months after coming into our shelter, and many emotional and bureaucratic hurdles later, Debbie and her kids just got a new apartment. This spring they'll be watching new life sprout up in a small new yard. They'll decorate new rooms with some of their old treasures, as well as donated items from this generous community. And they'll breathe a sigh of relief that at last, their Home Sweet Home is a safe home too.

The Women's Freedom Center is the local organization in Windham County working to end domestic and sexual violence. Follow us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/womensfreedomcenter and at www.womensfreedomcenter.net. You can reach an advocate on our 24-hour crisis line at 802-254-6954.


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