Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

Housing Shortage in DC Affects Domestic Violence Survivors

The Washington Post recently highlighted a disturbing trend that impacts domestic violence survivors attempting to leave abusive relationships: although funding for organizations providing safe housing has increased in the past six years, the availability of transitional housing and shelter units for survivors has decreased due to the rising cost of housing in the District of Columbia.  Fewer safe housing options for DV survivors means that more survivors often must continue to live with their abusers. Unfortunately, Legal Aid attorneys frequently see this trend play out in our client population.

One of my clients, whom I’ll call Ms. Smith, had been abused by her boyfriend for years.  Multiple times, she returned to live with her abuser after very violent abuse because she relied on him and his family for housing. After a recent violent assault, Ms. Smith filed a petition for and received a Civil Protection Order. She left court that day, order in hand, with no place to go.  With no income other than Social Security disability benefits, Ms. Smith’s prospects of finding sustainable, safe housing in the District were very limited.  She lived in a shelter for a few weeks, but time at DV shelters is short because beds are in high demand.  Ultimately, Ms. Smith returned to her abusive relationship.

Ms. Smith’s story is not unique.  Integral to a survivor’s success in leaving an abusive relationship is creating a safety plan, including access to basic services: food, shelter, transportation.  However, as outlined in the Post article, the demand for transitional housing for survivors greatly outpaces the supply, and rental assistance programs exhaust their funding before the end of the year, sometimes by mid-year because the need is so great.  Many survivors cannot afford rising rent prices in D.C., and emergency housing usually ends after twenty or thirty days.  According to the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, in 2015, 27% of homeless families in DC reported a history of domestic violence.  When a survivor does not have a safe place to go, like Ms. Smith, she often returns to the abusive relationship or decides it is not worth leaving if she will be homeless after thirty days in a shelter.

Typically, the abuse continues and the survivor might return a few months later to seek help leaving the relationship again.  Many times the abuse escalates, but the housing situation has not changed.  Safe housing is critical to domestic violence survivors leaving abusive relationships. We hope the number of units of emergency housing and transitional housing for survivors in the District will increase, eliminating one fewer barrier to leaving an abusive relationship for our clients and all domestic violence survivors.

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