Why So Many Domestic Violence Survivors End Up Homeless — And How To End The Cycle

by Sarah Fielding

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."

Victoria Warnken/Bustle

In fact, 50 percent of U.S. cities say domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Even if abuse is not the direct reason for her homelessness, it has happened to almost every homeless woman. The National Alliance to End Homelessness reports that 92 percent of homeless women have been severely assaulted and 63 percent have faced physical or sexual assault from an intimate partner. Unfortunately, homelessness is not a guarantee that they're safe. Thirty-two percent of women experience physical or sexual violence in the first 12 months of homelessness.

Then there's the fact that abusers will often force their partner to leave or lose their job, meaning they have no safety net if they leave the relationship. The Joint Center for Poverty Research at Northwestern University reports that between 25-50 percent of domestic violence survivors lose their jobs for reasons associated with their abuse and 22-57 percent of homeless women state their reason for homelessness as domestic violence and financial vulnerability.

Getting into a domestic violence shelter as a homeless woman is far from guaranteed. On a single day in 2015, the National Network to End Domestic Violence logged requests from 31,500 families hoping to be helped by a domestic violence shelter, and 12,197 of those requests were unmet do to lack of resources and funding. Of those unmet requests, 63 percent were for a place to live.

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 situation MSSA, 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.

"There's always the fear that the children will be taken away," Sister Nancy Chiarello, a founder of The Dwelling Place, an NYC women's shelter, and a case worker, tells Bustle. "The woman is seen as the abuser because they're out on the streets with their kids. But, again, what are their choices?"

And there's the fact that the consequences can be deadly if a survivor tries to leave the relationship. "We often say, 'Why doesn't he or she just leave?' But, honestly it's the most dangerous time when you leave because that's when you're more likely to be killed by an intimate partner," Jennifer DeCarli, assistant commissioner for the Family Justice Centers, tells Bustle. "There's a whole research body on separation violence and that when someone leaves, that's when you're most likely to be killed and there's a lot of risk assessment that goes into that."

When you look at the statistics, it's enough to scare anyone into staying in an abusive relationship. From 2009 to 2016 there were 156 mass shootings, 54 percent were related to domestic violence, and 40 percent of those involved the death of a child, according to Everytown For Gun Safety. On average, at least three women are murdered by their partner every day, the American Psychology Association reports.

Survivors are in a scary situation, but they may take comfort in the predictability of it. "Sometimes people stay because it's almost like, it's safer to stay because you know what's going on versus when you leave you're not sure what that abusive partner is doing and if they're looking for you or stalking you or things like that," DeCarli says.

It's also important to note relationship history, because once upon a time, their abuser was someone they fell for, not the monster they know today. It can be difficult to separate who they were from who they are today. "You have a relationship and a history with this person and you want to believe that that person can change, right?" DeCarli says.

It's important to also acknowledge a pet's role in keeping a woman in the relationship considering only three percent of domestic violence shelters countrywide accommodate animals. Congresswoman Katherine Clark of Massachusetts tells Bustle how pets can be a source of companionship for women and is working to expand critical resources to allow a woman to keep her pet after fleeing abuse with the Pet and Women Safety Act.

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.

Congresswoman Clark says the best thing you can to do be a good neighbor, which may mean ensuring their immigration status is separate from the reporting of a crime, especially in instances of domestic violence.

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.

"Don't be silent," First Lady of New York Chirlane McCray tells Bustle. Many women are terrified to seek help and making sure she has easy access to resources can make a huge difference, says McCray. "She knows where to go, what to do. Sometimes she doesn't want to get out of the relationship, and that's really tough. But, when she's ready, it's good for her to know what she can do, where she can go, what resources are available to her. I think that helps a lot," McCray says.

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

When you see a woman on the street or learn someone is in a shelter, it's critical to remember who's horrific actions put them there. Too often the blame is placed on women — that it's their fault their children are homeless, it's their fault they left their job, and it's their fault they are isolated from friends and family. But domestic abuse is not their fault.

"Until the question becomes, 'Why does abuse continue to happen?' we're not gonna see that needle move."

"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.

"Hold them accountable but, also, get at the root," First Lady McCray says. "What is driving this behavior? We know that, in many cases, the behavior is because people are modeling relationships they've seen growing up and just repeating those behaviors." Instead of allowing abusers to keep the house, money, and everything else these women earned in their lives as they're forced to escape, actions must be taken. That woman striving for the ability to buy food for her children should not lose everything while her abuser takes it all.

In Iowa, a state-wide program titled, Achieving Change Through Values-Based Behavior, teaches domestic abusers that violence often comes from a place of not understanding their emotions. Created by Amie Zarling, a Human Development Professor at Iowa State University, the program's exercises teach abusers greater tolerance for recognizing uncomfortable feelings. In the class, thoughts and feelings are compared to the weather to show that they're temporary. However, when you are impulsive as a result of these feelings, that impact is long-lasting.

Lucas Sampson, an ACTV teacher, told NPR that participants often tell her they wished they had learned these skills in high school — or before they got into a relationship. Since the program began, the amount of participants charged for another domestic violence offense has decreased by 50 percent.

Programs, such as the one in Iowa, can have a real impact in breaking the cycle of abuse and ensuring less women have to choose between abuse or homelessness.

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."

If healthy relationships aren't discussed in school, children may have no guide for what's acceptable — besides what they have at home. And if that dynamic isn't a positive one, that's what they may deem as normal. "We have to break the cycle and get our young people to understand, this is not a good model," First Lady McCray says. "They may have grown up with it and they think that's how things are done but, no, we have to teach them other ways, and we have to intervene."

The children of domestic violence survivors also need the resources to understand that the relationship they've witnessed is one of pain not emulation. There are 1.6 million homeless children in America every year. By age 12, 83 percent of homeless children have witnessed at least one serious act of violence, Green Doors reports. Children who see violence occur are more likely to accept it as a way to resolve conflict. Through working with these children, respectful behavior can be taught.

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.

"Intimate partner violence is not acceptable, no matter male, female, and this is something we have to keep out in the open, in the public conversation."

"It's really urgent that we take action, especially now, because with the defunding that's going on at the federal level, we know that thousands of women will be affected," First Lady McCray says. "It really does make women go underground. Intimate partner violence is not acceptable, no matter male, female, and this is something we have to keep out in the open, in the public conversation."

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.

Getting involved in your community is another way to help. Mayor Barry has implemented a plan to decrease the number of domestic violence and homeless incidences for women in the city. "In order to reduce the negative and potentially fatal impact of domestic violence on women and children, we will continue to measure the future risk to domestic violence victims through our Lethality Assessment Program while working to find housing and the necessary mental health care for all homeless citizens," she says.

In the time it took you to read this, hundreds of people, in America alone, were abused. This time tomorrow, three more women will be dead from domestic violence. Until we destigmatize the issue, educate the coming generations, and place the blame on the abuser — where it belongs — domestic violence will continue and lead to more women becoming homeless. No woman should ever have to go through that. This community matters, their stories matter, and how we are able to help them matters.