Home Posts When You're Constantly Fleeing An Abuser, Home Isn't A Guarantee.
When You're Constantly Fleeing An Abuser, Home Isn't A Guarantee.
Domestic Violence

When You're Constantly Fleeing An Abuser, Home Isn't A Guarantee.


Angela and her four children have moved ten times since fleeing her abusive husband in 2017. She doesn't always have the money to move, but when he finds out where they live, she has no choice. When he found Angela, he showed up with a handgun, threatened to kill her and the children, and forced her back to their old home.

Angela filed for divorce in the beginning of 2020, just as COVID-19 began spreading in the United States, and family courts across the country shut down, making it impossible for her to finalize the divorce and permanently cut ties with her abusive husband.

“The day he was arrested and charged, my children and I ran,” Angela explained, “and we haven’t stopped since.”

Angela lost her job as a result of pandemic-related shutdowns, and she and her children first lived in a domestic violence shelter, where she was afraid they would contract COVID-19, before moving in with friends and then to another state to live with family.

“It breaks my heart to tell my kids we have to move again, somewhere completely different, and they will have to make new friends,” she said. “But I constantly have to look over my shoulder to make sure he doesn’t find us. If he does, we have to pick up and move. We don’t always have the funds, but it doesn’t matter.”

Since Angela (not her real name) spoke with Stardia in May, her ex-husband has discovered where she and the kids are, and they are planning to relocate in July.

Domestic violence survivors, like Angela, face housing insecurity at a disproportionate rate and as a direct result of their abuse. From an inability to pay rent due to economic abuse to a violent partner causing property damage, there are numerous reasons victims find themselves on the verge of losing their home.

My children and I ran the day he was arrested and charged, and we haven't stopped since.

Angela, a survivor of domestic abuse

Experts believe the isolation of stay-at-home orders exacerbated situations of intimate partner violence, while living in a congregate setting like a shelter came with the risk of contracting COVID-19.

“COVID has created this additional layer of life or death decisions that women are frequently trying to navigate on behalf of themselves and their children that can feel impossible to figure out,” said Julia Devanthéry, an attorney and Harvard Law professor who founded the Housing Justice for Survivors Project at Harvard’s Legal Services Center.

Devanthéry trains law students to represent tenants experiencing housing insecurity due to domestic violence or sexual assault, with the goal of preventing homelessness by providing free legal services to people who need to get out of abusive situations but may not have the financial means. Her entire caseload is currently made up of survivors, with 98% of them being mothers who are the head of their households.

“Relocation is a huge life event. It’s difficult to pick up and move even under the best of circumstances,” Devanthéry said. “But under the worst possible circumstances you can imagine: where you’re scared for your life, the well-being of your children, you don’t have a lot of choice and resources, and there’s a bureaucratic challenge around every corner? It’s terrifying. Especially during COVID.”

Long before COVID-19, there were many factors working against survivors of domestic and sexual violence. To begin, there is a severe lack of affordable housing in the United States: only about one in every four families who would qualify for subsidized housing actually has it. Affordable housing is especially important for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, who frequently need to move quickly and do not have many options.

Even if a survivor has the means to pick up and move right away, the housing they are in frequently restricts their ability to do so.

Even if a survivor has the means to pick up and move right away, the housing they are in frequently restricts their ability to do so..A voucher tenant must go through the bureaucratic process of obtaining a voucher, finding a place to live, and having that new place approved.

Even if a survivor has the means to pick up and move right away, the housing they are in frequently restricts their ability to do so..A voucher tenant must go through the bureaucratic process of obtaining a voucher, finding a place to live, and having that new place approved..A public housing tenant must obtain approval from the housing authority before transferring, which can take years.

Even if a survivor has the means to pick up and move right away, the housing they are in frequently restricts their ability to do so..A voucher tenant must go through the bureaucratic process of obtaining a voucher, finding a place to live, and having that new place approved..A public housing tenant must obtain approval from the housing authority before transferring, which can take years..A tenant may be unable to be transferred at all in project-based housing.

Even if a survivor has the means to pick up and move right away, the housing they are in frequently restricts their ability to do so..A voucher tenant must go through the bureaucratic process of obtaining a voucher, finding a place to live, and having that new place approved..A public housing tenant must obtain approval from the housing authority before transferring, which can take years..A tenant may be unable to be transferred at all in project-based housing..A private tenant has a little more power, but breaking a lease can be expensive and adds another barrier to a survivor's ability to simply pick up and leave.

Even if a survivor has the means to pick up and move right away, the housing they are in frequently restricts their ability to do so..A voucher tenant must go through the bureaucratic process of obtaining a voucher, finding a place to live, and having that new place approved..A public housing tenant must obtain approval from the housing authority before transferring, which can take years..A tenant may be unable to be transferred at all in project-based housing..A private tenant has a little more power, but breaking a lease can be expensive and adds another barrier to a survivor's ability to simply pick up and leave..In some areas, such as Philadelphia, survivors can break their lease without penalty if they are subjected to domestic or sexual violence, but these are the exception rather than the rule.

Even if a survivor has the means to pick up and move right away, the housing they are in frequently restricts their ability to do so..A voucher tenant must go through the bureaucratic process of obtaining a voucher, finding a place to live, and having that new place approved..A public housing tenant must obtain approval from the housing authority before transferring, which can take years..A tenant may be unable to be transferred at all in project-based housing..A private tenant has a little more power, but breaking a lease can be expensive and adds another barrier to a survivor's ability to simply pick up and leave..In some areas, such as Philadelphia, survivors can break their lease without penalty if they are subjected to domestic or sexual violence, but these are the exception rather than the rule.. 

When faced with few options, many victims' only option is to move into a temporary shelter rather than long-term stable housing; however, shelters can only house people for so long before victims are forced back into their initial bad situation: choosing between homelessness or moving back in with an abuser.

It's difficult to pick up and move in the best of circumstances, but it's terrifying in the worst of circumstances: where you're afraid for your life, the well-being of your children, you don't have a lot of choice and resources, and there's a bureaucratic challenge around every corner.

Julia Devanthéry is a Harvard Law School professor and an attorney.

Rachel Garland, managing attorney of the Housing Unit at Philadelphia's Community Legal Services, described the feeling as "constantly stuck."

“That’s what this level of violence is, whether it’s domestic violence or sexual assault,” she explained. “You’re facing an emotionally traumatic event or series of events in which you need to be able to think very clearly and have all of your resources available in order to get out, and yet the trauma of the event often makes someone incapable of figuring out any of the stuff.

When Poverty Meets Abuse

While not all victims of domestic and sexual violence are women, the vast majority are, and women face higher rates of poverty and earn less due to the gender wage gap.

Because women are more likely to be poor, they are more likely to face housing insecurity, whether that means being evicted or losing housing subsidies such as a Section 8 voucher. Women of color face eviction at higher rates. In poor Black and Latinx neighborhoods, “eviction is to women what incarceration is to men,” Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond wrote in his 2016 book “Evicted:

As of April, over 4 million women in the United States were unemployed; some were laid off, while others were forced to leave the workforce to care for children or elderly parents at home. Child care and hospitality — two industries where women of color are overrepresented — have seen the deepest job cuts.

Nonpayment of rent is the main reason victims experience housing insecurity, according to Devanthéry and several other attorneys who spoke with Stardia. But why they can't pay rent is due to their situation: for example, they have a financially abusive partner.

“You often have survivors making these life or death decisions: Do they keep a roof over their heads with their abuser because they know they can't afford rent on their own? Or do they call the police and get a restraining order?” Devanthéry said.

According to a report released last fall by the Me Too organization, female survivors of domestic and sexual violence who lacked financial resources during the pandemic were more likely to return to their abusive partner. Women who reported a high likelihood of returning to abusers had access to an average of only $3,700; survivors who reported no likelihood of returning to abusers had access to more than $10,000.

“What we discovered, while sobering, wasn’t shocking,” Tarana Burke, founder of the Me Too movement, told Stardia in November. “COVID-19 illuminates the ways in which our social and economic safety net catches some while allowing the most vulnerable to fall through the cracks.”

COVID-19 reveals how our social and economic safety net catches some while allowing the most vulnerable to fall through the cracks.

Tarana Burke is the creator of the Me Too movement.

Domestic violence victims may face housing insecurity as a result of their abuser's actions: some may face eviction due to criminal activity by the abuser, or because the police come too frequently and disturb neighbors; in some cases, abusers intentionally sabotage a victim's home by causing property damage.

If victims' Section 8 housing vouchers are revoked, it is usually because police executed a search warrant at their home related to their abuser's criminal activity. In subsidized housing, landlords can evict tenants for a domestic violence incident, and victims can only keep their housing if they can prove in court that they are the victim, not the abuser.)

Although sexual assault and domestic violence are classified as the same, victims of sexual violence frequently have different needs. Sexual assault survivors may need to leave their homes due to an imminent threat from a perpetrator who knows where they live, but more often than not, the trauma of having to live in the house where they were assaulted forces victims to leave.

“Survivors of sexual assault frequently have unique needs that are not met in systems designed to serve survivors of domestic violence,” said Renee Williams, senior staff attorney at the National Housing Law Project.

For some, sexual assault isn't a one-time occurrence by an existing partner; instead, much of the sexual violence that can jeopardize a person's housing occurs between a landlord and tenant. If a tenant can't pay rent, a landlord or property manager may request sexual favors for himself or even friends or family members. These situations may begin consensually but can quickly turn abusive.

“Tenants who have been in a pandemic for the past year and are worried about rent, with no prospect of gainful employment in the near future,” Garland said of sexually exploitative landlord-tenant relationships.

Eviction Moratoria Are Coming To An End

Domestic violence survivors, as well as survivors of sexual assault and stalking, are entitled to housing protections under the Violence Against Women Act. Although Congress failed to reauthorize VAWA in 2019, the law's housing protections, among other things, remain in effect.

The 2013 reauthorization of VAWA included robust housing protections for survivors of gender-based violence. A survivor cannot be denied housing because of the abuse they experienced, nor can they be evicted or have their Section 8 voucher terminated if the reasons for eviction are due to the abuse.

Under the 2013 VAWA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development added another safeguard, allowing survivors to self-certify their status as victims of gender-based violence.

“Not everyone has a paper trail of their abuse, whether it’s a police report or restraining order; these are often highly private experiences that people feel a lot of shame about and don’t always report,” Devanthéry explained.

“We should never be tying house protections or benefits to contact with law enforcement or the criminal legal system,” she added, pointing out that the police are not always a safe option, especially for survivors who are undocumented or a person of color.

When the eviction moratorium is lifted, it will only make things more difficult for these tenants; there are still a lot of unknowns, but the eviction piece is now at least somewhat stable.

Rachel Garland is the managing attorney for Community Legal Services in Philadelphia.

During COVID-19, federal and state eviction moratoriums saved lives and kept people in their homes during a devastating pandemic, but such safeguards will likely be lifted as more people are vaccinated and the country opens up. Millions of tenants, many of whom, like Angela, are survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault, are bracing for the impact.

“When the eviction moratorium is lifted, it will just make it more difficult for these tenants. There may be a lot of uncertainties, but at least there’s a certain level of stability around the eviction piece,” said Garland, an attorney with Philadelphia’s Community Legal Services. “Lifting the moratorium will turn that stability into a question mark. Will they be evicted? When will they be evicted?”

Many experts told Stardia that there are a variety of resources and protections available to survivors; the biggest challenge is getting those resources into the hands of victims and educating them about the protections available. Nationally, more than $45 billion has been allocated toward pandemic-related rental assistance for tenants and landlords, both now and when the eviction moratorium ends.

Angela's experience has been extremely slow and frustrating; she only recently received the money she applied for in February, and the delay has set her back even further: her landlord is still threatening to turn off her water and sending her eviction notices because she now owes money for late fees.

“They promise you this money, but they don’t send it when they say they will,” Angela said, adding that she wished she could work instead because there was “no way to make money” during the COVID-19 shutdowns. “There’s no timeline they can give you on when the money will be sent out.”

But Angela, her new husband, and her four children won't be there much longer because her ex discovered where they live. The move comes with its own set of financial challenges: her husband will have to completely restart his business, and they'll be living with family because they can't afford their own place. At least in this new place, Angela noted, she won't have to apply for rental assistance.

Devanthéry, who works with survivors like Angela on a daily basis, said it's been bleak when she's stepped back and assessed all the obstacles victims faced during the pandemic — but she finds solace in recognizing what they've collectively survived.

“It’s important to focus on what’s been hard and really damaging for survivors over the last year, but honoring survival is also important,” she said. “So many of the people we represent are surviving, whether they’re still in abusive relationships, years out of them, or just weeks.

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