Domestic violence is one of the primary causes of homelessness for women. Women who are financially dependent upon their violent partners often face an untenable choice: remaining in dangerous situations or becoming homeless. This choice is undeniably more difficult for women with children, for they are making decisions with consideration for their children’s safety and well-being as well as their own. This research paper will present a discussion of the extent of the problem, causes, and pathways of homelessness, policies and their implications, theories, and programmatic responses. In addition, two contemporary topics of debate will be explored.
I. What Is the Extent of the Problem?
A. Causes of Homelessness
B. Pathways of Homelessness
II. Policies and Policy Implications
III. Theoretical Perspectives
IV. Programmatic Responses
What Is the Extent of the Problem?
There are two primary vantage points from which to understand the extent of the problem of domestic violence and homelessness: the proportion of homeless parents who have a history of domestic violence and the proportion of homeless parents who report that domestic violence is the primary reason they are seeking shelter. Some recent research is summarized below to provide insight into these two perspectives.
In one study, 47 percent of homeless parents reported a history of domestic violence, and one in four stated that a primary reason they sought shelter was domestic violence (daCosta Nunez 2004). The U.S. Conference of Mayors’ 2004 survey of homelessness and hunger in twenty-seven cities reported that twelve cities identified domestic violence as a primary cause of homelessness; moreover, this survey has documented increases in the numbers of homeless families turned away from emergency shelters across the country. Choi and Snyder (1999) reported that 16.2 percent of their sample said that domestic violence was the primary reason for their homelessness, ranking as the second most common reason. A Chicago study found that 22 percent of homeless women interviewed stated that domestic violence was the immediate cause of their homelessness, and more than one-half (56 percent) said they had histories of domestic violence (Levin, McKean, and Raphael 2004). However, Metreaux and Culhane (1999) found that only 8.9 percent of their sample reported domestic violence in their households prior to shelter stays.
While the literature provides varying estimates of both elements associating domestic violence and homelessness (history and immediate cause), it is clear that such a relationship exists. What is less clear is the extent of causality, for domestic violence does not always lead to homelessness, nor is homelessness always caused by domestic violence. Potential factors that limit researchers’ ability to draw conclusions include research methodologies (interviews and/or surveys versus use of administrative records), confidentiality practices that prohibit the reporting of domestic violence, poor record-keeping by service agencies, and reluctance of homeless families to self-identify as victims of domestic violence.
Causes of Homelessness
The causes of homelessness have been identified as generally falling into one of two categories: structural and individual. Structural causes of homelessness generally refer to the inability of society to provide sufficient resources for everyone to remain stably housed. These include lack of affordable housing, lack of jobs, skills gaps (differences in the skills demanded by the job market and those offered by potential workers), and lack of transportation to jobs. Structural causes of homelessness can also include those ancillary situations in which jobs lack health insurance, which results in the inability of poor workers to maintain their health and therefore their ability to work. Alternatively, the individual causes of homelessness include mental illness, substance abuse, lack of job skills, and domestic violence. These occur when the individual has internal characteristics that prevent him or her from finding and maintaining gainful employment, thus resulting in an inability to be self-sufficient. Although this discussion started by describing two categories of causes for homelessness, in reality these causes often interact for individuals and families. For example, if job training programs are offered to people who lack job skills but the community infrastructure does not provide sufficient jobs to employ newly trained individuals, homelessness may still result. Similarly, individuals who complete treatment programs for substance abuse may find that there is insufficient affordable housing and remain homeless.
Domestic violence as a cause of homelessness similarly presents a complex set of interrelationships among structural and individual causes. For women who have depended upon their partners for economic support, who lack work histories and/or job skills, these barriers to self-sufficiency and stable housing will be exacerbated by such structural phenomena as the feminization of poverty. Relevant evidence of the feminization of poverty includes the fact that on average, women earn less than men, female single-parent families represent the majority of all families living in poverty, and approximately 50 percent more women than men are poor. The implication of the feminization of poverty for women striving for self-sufficiency is that despite their best efforts to overcome their personal limitations, structural factors will limit their success.
Other risk factors that have been associated with homelessness and domestic violence include childhood abuse experiences where there was nobody to turn to for sources of safety and support (Anderson and Imle 2001).
Pathways of Homelessness
Homeless families are the fastest-growing subpopulation of the homeless; most homeless families are made up of women with children. Homeless families often follow a path that is characterized by housing instability. They often start out by staying temporarily with family or friends. This is called ‘‘doubling up.’’ As their presence becomes burdensome on those they are staying with, they often shift to other family members or friends. Doubling up can become problematic for host families because of overcrowding, financial burdens, or interpersonal conflicts. Such situations are exacerbated when the homeless family is fleeing domestic violence and potential danger to the members of the host family is a realistic concern.
The path of housing instability may continue once the family unit has exhausted personal support resources such as family members and friends. The initial choice is typically a domestic violence shelter (and, indeed, may be the first choice, depending on the availability of host families and/ or the extent of immediate danger). Domestic violence shelters offer safe havens and the assurance that the family unit can remain intact. However, such shelters usually have time limits for staying in them and may or may not offer second-stage, transitional, or other subsequent housing options following the termination of such time limits. In those communities where the domestic violence shelter system ends following emergency shelter stays, the family must turn to the mainstream homeless service system.
There are several reasons why mainstream homeless services are undesirable for both families in general and families that are fleeing domestic violence in particular. First, some homeless shelters have policies that restrict their residents to adults only. This means that the parent and child or children are likely to be separated. The children may be placed in foster care or youth shelters, depending on their ages. These options are destructive to the family unit, may exacerbate the trauma associated with the experience of domestic violence and the subsequent homelessness for both parents and children, and may increase the danger to both. Second, where shelters do allow children to stay with their parents, often only congregate, dormitory-style sleeping arrangements are available. This is true even when separate quarters are available for women with their children. Such sleeping arrangements produce concerns about safety for the children; also, school-aged children may not get the sleep they need to succeed in their classes. Third, specific to families fleeing domestic violence, mainstream emergency shelters for homeless people do not offer the level of security available in safe havens for victims of domestic violence. Fourth, reporting domestic violence is related to increased risk of multiple stays in emergency shelters and decreased likelihood of successful exits from shelter systems. This is likely due to the increased social and economic strains associated with domestic violence (Metreaux and Culhane 1999). Fifth, women who stay in emergency shelters are more likely than women either in transitional housing programs or in the community to score higher on clinical tests of psychological distress, anxiety, dissociation, sexual concerns, and intrusive experiences (Gorde, Helfrich, and Finlayson 2004).
Finally, there is considerable concern among providers of services to domestic violence victims due to federal reporting mandates. Later in this research paper, the debate about sharing information via the national Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) will be presented; suffice it to say here that protections for the identity of domestic violence victims are not in effect once families enter the mainstream system of care for the homeless.
Policies and Policy Implications
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (42 USC 119) provides the following general definition of a homeless person:
(1) an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence; and
(2) an individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is—
(A) a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations (including welfare hotels, congregate shelters, and transitional housing for the mentally ill);
(B) an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized; or
(C) a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings. (§ 11302)
Federal law defines homeless children as ‘‘individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence’’ (42 USC 119, §11432 et seq.). Included are children who share housing with other persons because of economic hardship or loss of housing; live in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds because they do not have alternative living arrangements; reside in emergency or transitional shelters; have been abandoned in hospitals; or, are waiting for placement with a foster care family.
Relevant to the discussion of domestic violence and homelessness is the disparity between federal definitions for general homelessness and for homeless children. As can be seen from the definitions provided above, an adult fleeing a domestic violence situation with one or more children may or may not be considered homeless, but the child or children may be. Specifically, children who are sharing housing with other persons because of economic hardship or loss of housing; or living in motels, hotels, or trailer parks because they do not have alternative living arrangements are considered homeless by federal law; however, their adult parents are not. These disparities in federal law mean that various rights and benefits for adults and children fleeing domestic violence situations may differ. In general, adults who are considered homeless according to the federal definition may be eligible for a variety of homeless assistance programs, including those providing food, counseling, job training, and other supportive services. These may be essential for the adult to establish economic self-sufficiency and therefore freedom from dependence upon abusive partners. Children who are considered homeless are entitled to free and appropriate education, and local education agencies must ensure that barriers to educational success such as segregation and lack of transportation are removed. These assurances can provide safety mechanisms and even supportive counseling for children who have left abusive situations.
There is no single theory that explicates the relationship between domestic violence and homelessness. Two theories that have been discussed as relevant to domestic violence are learned helplessness and gendered entitlement. Learned helplessness refers to the long-term pattern of weakened resistance to violence in a relationship; it assumes that the victim is unwilling or unable to actively plan and execute strategies for leaving the abusive relationship. Gendered entitlement is a feminist perspective that places domestic violence in a cultural environment where male power is valued and attempts on the part of female victims to end abusive relationships are not supported by those in their lives (including family, courts, police, etc.).
Theories of homelessness include disaffiliation, abeyance, and liminality. Disaffiliation theory explains homelessness in terms of detachment from social bonds and social institutions. Abeyance refers to a structural condition where the needs of the many cannot be met by society; available resources are demanded by a surplus of users. Liminality describes the social, cultural, and physical limbo that homeless people experience: They are outside of society’s network and therefore always in transition.
If these theories have anything in common, it is isolation: Victims of domestic violence are isolated from friends, family, and social support structures; similarly, homeless people are isolated from mainstream society. When victims of domestic violence become homeless, increased isolation is the logical result. It therefore becomes the work of the social service system to assist these individuals and families in reestablishing fragile ties and rebuilding resilient responses.
For homeless people who have experienced domestic violence, services must be comprehensive and coordinated. First and foremost, the safety of parents and children must be assured. If this means increasing the length of time such families can stay in safe havens, then resources must be sought to allow this practice to flourish. If this means creating more safe havens, then resources must be directed to meet this need. Given that mainstream emergency shelters are often the only option left to families fleeing violent homes, these shelters can set aside private sleeping quarters for such families and increase security protocols.
Prevention is more challenging for families experiencing domestic violence than for others who are at risk of homelessness. It may increase the danger for victims to acknowledge their situations and seek help before leaving their violent homes. The only viable alternatives may be public education and parenting and relationship educational programs.
Transitional housing programs are viable responses to the needs of this population. They typically provide supportive services and affordable housing for up to eighteen months, an arrangement that can be very effective in assisting homeless families that have experienced domestic violence in achieving emotional, physical, and financial stability.
The creation of affordable housing options can assist those survivors who are able to work toward self-sufficiency. Communities can seek ordinances that require the creation of integrated affordable housing as well as advocate for increased subsidized housing vouchers from state and federal governments.
There are two topics relevant to this discussion that are the subject of national debate: initiatives on chronic homelessness and HMIS reporting requirements. The federal administration under George W. Bush has identified chronic homelessness as its top priority based on evidence that the chronically homeless spend a disproportionate amount of time in the service system and use a disproportionate share of the resources available for the whole homeless population. There are potentially negative implications for those experiencing both domestic violence and homelessness, as they are qualitatively different from those living on the streets for extended periods. Concerns have been raised about the diversion of scarce funding resources from generic service program approaches to those that focus on the chronically homeless. The kinds of programs that have been previously described as potentially effective for those experiencing both domestic violence and homelessness, namely extended-stay safe havens, humane emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, and community education efforts, are under threat of losing funding due to the emphasis on chronic homelessness.
The second area of debate concerns the national database that is being funded and required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Domestic violence shelters qualify for funding under many of HUD’s program initiatives. Yet, HUD is inexorably moving in the direction of requiring organizations to participate in the national HMIS in order to qualify for funding for their homeless service programs. At the local level, this means that all of the service agencies in a given community will record and share information about the homeless people they serve. Ultimately, such data will be shared at the state and national levels as well. On the one hand, sharing data about service recipients can increase efficiency and document needed services. On the other hand, domestic violence shelters are at their core concerned with the safety of their residents, and sharing personal information on public databases threatens their very missions. Considerable communications have taken place between HUD and domestic violence advocates, but concerns persist about the perception that HUD’s revised position on this point falls short of protecting service recipients. In these ways, the debate frames the very designation of people fleeing domestic violence situations as homeless, for to refrain from such designations may mean loss of precious financial resources for service provision.
This research paper has provided a number of perspectives on the impact of domestic violence on homelessness. The extent of the problem, causes, and pathways of homelessness, policies and their implications, theories, and programmatic responses have all been presented. In addition, two contemporary topics of debate were explored. The convergence of domestic violence and homelessness as one social problem will persist as long as there is either domestic violence or homelessness. To effectively address this compound social problem, it is necessary to simultaneously develop and implement evidence-based service interventions for each problem individually and understand more clearly the unique attributes and needs of individuals and families experiencing both life situations.
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- McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, 42 USC 119. McLanahan, S. S., and E. L. Kelly. ‘‘The Feminization of Poverty: Past and Future.’’ Network on the Family and the Economy (n. d.). http://apps.olin.wustl.edu/macarthur/working%20papers/wp-mclanahan3.htm.
- Metreaux, S., and D. P. Culhane. ‘‘Family Dynamics, Housing, and Recurring Homelessness among Women in New York City Homeless Shelters.’’ Journal of Family Issues 20, no. 3 (1999): 371–396.
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