Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Preventing Homelessness for Survivors of Domestic Violence

September 13, 2011

In my role as a program officer for the foundation’s Pacific Northwest initiative, I am honored to bear witness to the stories of women whose resilience in the face of adversity is a constant source of inspiration.

Muriel (a pseudonym) has sought the help of the domestic violence service system several times in recent years. She initially reached out under threat of having her children removed from her care unless she removed the family from her long-time abusive partner’s control.  She did flee her abuser, but not soon enough to prevent her children from being placed in foster care.

Muriel’s story is one reason why, today, my colleague David Wertheimer is in Washington, D.C. at an event celebrating the 17th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) – and the work of many leaders and institutions around the country working to end violence against women.

Closer to home, here in Seattle, WA, Womencare, the domestic violence shelter where Muriel sought refuge in Bellingham, Washington, is piloting a new program which seeks to eliminate housing as a reason that domestic violence (DV) survivors stay in an abusive relationship. This approach, called the Domestic Violence Housing First program, is being implemented in collaboration with the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV), a partner in the foundation’s work to reduce family homelessness in Washington state.

What you may not know is that domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness for women and children, as many women who flee their abusers have no place to go, face landlord discrimination, and often are temporarily unable to work. The focus on keeping domestic violence survivors in safe, permanent housing is meant to supplement the critical crisis support that DV service providers offer survivors.

Through the support of a domestic violence advocate at Womencare, Muriel was able to file a protection order and create a personalized safety plan. The advocate helped Muriel find resources to address her chronic health challenges, and helped her access Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Typical of the essential services that most DV service providers offer, these supports were critical to stabilizing Muriel’s immediate crisis, but they were not enough to put her on a path to self sufficiency. Modeled after the housing first approach that has proven successful with homeless populations for over a decade, DV Housing First focuses on helping DV survivors retain or access safe permanent housing quickly. To support housing stability, DV Housing First provides tailored services based on survivors’ unique needs, including such supports as transportation subsidies, career training, job-related expenses, child care, and temporary rental assistance.

The additional support Womencare was able to offer through the DV Housing First program allowed Muriel to return to college to work toward finishing her degree. Most importantly, the program helped her access permanent, affordable, and safe housing large enough for her family – without which she could not have regained custody of her children.

The program has been successful – not only in Muriel’s case but for many survivors and their children throughout Washington state. Last Friday, domestic violence and housing service providers in Washington and Oregon gathered at the foundation with local, state and national policy makers and funders to learn about the results of the DV Housing First program.

In the first two years of the program, Womencare and three other DV service providers from throughout Washington have supported 171 DV survivors and their children in retaining or accessing permanent housing. The early results are promising:

  • 93.8 percent of DV Housing First participants receiving services for at least six months were still housed at six months.
  • 80.4 percent of participants receiving services for at least 12 months were still housed at 12 months.

The first phase of the program has demonstrated that DV Housing First provides a safe alternative to shelter stays for many families like Muriel’s – and may offer a new pathway to the prevention of homelessness. Based on these positive initial results, the foundation has supported WSCADV to expand the program to nine new DV service providers in Washington state.

Through the pioneering work of organizations like WSCADV and Womencare supporting the housing stability of DV survivors, more women like Muriel will have the chance to live a healthy and productive life. I am honored to bear witness to their stories.

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