THE BLOG
07/31/2013 01:10 pm ET | Updated Sep 30, 2013

Turning Inside Outcomes

This might sound like an odd question, but how do you know that your home is successful? Is it because you're not afraid that you'll be forced to leave it unexpectedly? Or because you aren't subject to violence by someone you live with? Or maybe, if you did decide to leave your home without notice, you could easily find another because your job is stable and pays enough to afford the average rent. And you live in an area where there is sufficient affordable housing to move to. And there's not a war, or other conflict, going on that makes it too dangerous to reside there.

More specifically, who should determine whether your home is successful? Should it be you? Or should it be someone else who decides -- like your landlord or your mortgage lender? Maybe it should be determined by your therapist, your boss or your parents.

This is the question being asked of programs that provide housing for victims of domestic and sexual violence in the U.S. It's not an unreasonable question for funders to ask. If they are going to invest their money in programs which provide housing and resources to help victims of violence establish new, independent homes, so the logic goes, they have a right to know if their money is making a lasting difference in those survivors' lives.

Of course, this is a question which only really applies in places where it's actually possible for survivors to set up independent households. On my recent trip to Kabul, Afghanistan, this was clearly not the case. Women who escape violent abuse in their homes have few options available to them from there. Advocates either help to negotiate an agreement with their families to help victims return home "safely," or find other relatives in the country who can take them in. Otherwise, survivors are in relative limbo, left to reside in the few transitional housing programs available, only located in urban centers.

What I find truly odd is that survivors in Washington, D.C. have a similar problem, albeit for a different reason. In a recent report, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) demonstrates that it costs more than $88,000 per year for a family of four just to "get by" in the city. Between expenses for fair market rent, average childcare costs, taxes, food and other expenses, policy makers at the DCFPI stated that it was "virtually impossible to make ends meet" for low- and moderate-income people living in the District.

For those escaping domestic or sexual violence, this effectively results in the same state of suspension that victims in Kabul, Afghanistan, experience. With few affordable options, and without an infusion of financial assistance and other resources, survivors are faced with the choice between returning to potentially dangerous homes and moving in with other family members or friends. In fact, this situation is almost more confounding for women in the U.S., who leave abusive homes with the belief that they actually have a wide array of options, only to learn later of the stark reality.

So, attempting to answer the question of whether that infusion of support will actually help survivors to get, and keep, safe housing is complicated for programs like DASH (where I am the executive director). While we do everything we can to assist our program participants to move from our programs into safer living situations, the odds are still stacked against them.

I recently participated in a meeting of researchers, and national level advocacy organizations to discuss this very question -- i.e., how to design "outcome measures" to demonstrate to stakeholders the impact of their investment, balanced with the challenging circumstances many programs, like mine, confront. We spent a great deal of the conversation focused on immediate outcomes: residents' reported feelings of increased safety, self-efficacy and access to resources. It has been shown that when residents exit from programs with greater capacity in these areas, they have a better chance of finding and keeping a safe place to live. This may, or may not, be enough to satisfy stakeholders, but it might be the only measure by which to show tangible results.

Given this complexity, I believe that there are three things for those investing in domestic violence housing programs to keep in mind when looking for answers about how their money makes a difference:

1. Understand and accept that successful short-term outcomes generally lead to a greater likelihood of long-term results toward stabilization;

2. Invest in collaborative alliances and individual program initiatives which help prevent homelessness and mitigate the conditions that contribute to domestic and sexual violence, so that questions about other long-term outcomes become moot;

3. Let go of the expectation that all survivors should achieve the same outcomes, and recognize that adult survivors are capable of identifying and pursuing the outcomes that are best for them, with adequate support and resources.

Victims of domestic and sexual violence may need help getting out of violent homes and finding safer living situations, but despite that vulnerability, they are still the most qualified people to make decisions about their own, best interests. In fact, recent research shows that survivors, when empowered to make decisions for themselves -- yes, with support from programs, counselors and, most importantly, from their own communities and networks -- are more likely to achieve long-lasting safety and stability.

Whether in Washington, D.C., or Kabul, Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world, survivors need to be the ones setting the course for their lives after escaping abuse. Cultural restrictions may make those decisions more difficult. Financial limitations may make those decisions more finite. Regardless, the decisions should still reside with the individual victim, because that's when the best outcomes are achieved. We just need to make sure that the resources are there to give them the best array of options possible.

Wouldn't you want the same?