Addressing domestic violence by preventing homelessness

Addressing domestic violence by preventing homelessness

Over the last four months, we've witnessed the dangerous coalescing of domestic violence and homelessness — both of which were problems before the pandemic but have become more urgent since the arrival of the virus. Elevated stress levels have led to an increase in abusive behavior, while stay-at-home-orders have made it difficult for survivors to seek help. The economic fallout from the virus also is pushing many into joblessness, homelessness, and unsafe environments.

Together, domestic violence and lack of affordable housing make life exponentially harder for those who experience them. Recognizing the deep connection between the two issues — which affect millions of individuals, families, and communities — provides us with an opportunity to come up with solutions at their intersection. One such solution that is proving successful in California is the Domestic Violence Housing First model, an innovative approach that acknowledges the enormous threat to the lives of too many Californians posed by domestic violence and housing insecurity.

Housing insecurity is a significant factor in the decision of many survivors of domestic violence to remain in abusive relationships — and in the continued exposure of too many children to that violence. The lack of affordable housing in many parts of California makes it harder for those experiencing domestic violence to leave the person causing them harm. To break this cycle of violence — a cycle that often perpetuates itself across generations — we must do more, and do better, to support those most at risk.

Since 2016, the state of California has been implementing the Domestic Violence Housing First model, which assists domestic violence survivors with funds needed to cover the cost of options directly related to their housing stability, well-being, and safety. Recently Blue Shield of California Foundation released an evaluation of the program.

The model empowers survivors of domestic violence to make decisions related to their critical needs and connects them with a supportive community of service providers. Funds provided through the program can be used for rental assistance and a wide range of expenses, including food, safety measures, transportation, utility payments, and childcare costs. Flexibility is a key aspect of the program; often, it is the small challenges and expenses that lead to housing instability and homelessness.

Imagine a situation in which you can make the rent (if barely), but the car you rely on to get to your job needs new brakes or a new transmission, and so you're forced to choose between paying for the repair or the groceries you need to keep your family fed. The Domestic Violence Housing First model allows survivors to pay for both, making it possible for them to escape homelessness and an unsafe relationship.

A Housing First case study in the evaluation illuminates how even modest funds to cover the cost of moving can change the lives of survivors of domestic violence and their children. Meathead Movers, a local California moving company that provides discounts and waives identification requirements for survivors, gives individuals — regardless of citizenship status — a safe and affordable way to move from one location to another. Being able to afford such a mundane but critical service can help survivors build a new life.

It's clear that if we address the housing instability of survivors, we'll also be taking a significant step toward addressing California's homelessness problem. Indeed, the Blue Shield of California Foundation evaluation found that, statewide, 58 percent of the flexible funding provided by the Domestic Violence Housing First program directly served to prevent homelessness.

COVID-19 has put all sorts of pressure on state budgets, but California, like every other state, must take the long view and devote more resources toward ending domestic violence and homelessness. The Domestic Violence Housing First model gives us a blueprint for deeper investments that will keep many survivors and their children from having to couch-surf or live in their cars. while providing a pathway to safe, stable housing.

Now more than ever we need strategies to prevent domestic violence survivors from becoming homeless. We believe in people and families — and in affordable housing as a right. Together, we can create a stronger, safer, and healthier California for all.

(Photo credit: National Coalition for the Homeless)

Richard Thomason is the director of policy at Blue Shield of California Foundation and Krista Niemczyk is the public policy director at California Partnership to End Domestic Violence.

Featured commentary and opinion

June 24, 2020