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Margaret A. Hacskaylo Headshot

The Devil Is in the District

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On Tuesday, July 15, the Community Foundation for the National Capitol Area released Housing Security in the Washington Region, a housing study revealing critical gaps in affordable housing across a range of income levels. In it, the authors state, "Homelessness is the most extreme consequence of a lack of affordable housing and permanent supportive housing options in the region." But that's not entirely true.

For victims of domestic and sexual violence in the District, the most extreme consequence of a lack of affordable housing is actually homicide. And that outcome is becoming more and more likely in a city where safe housing options are dwindling while the need among victims is surging.

On July 1, the Washington Post reported a significant increase in domestic violence homicides - 12 women murdered so far this year in domestic incidents, as compared to 11 victims total in 2012 ("D.C. police probe latest spike in killings; number of female victims worries chief", July 2, 2014). The report states that Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier was "largely concerned by the 'significant increase' in domestic slayings and an unusual number of women killed."

Indeed, the incidence of domestic violence in the city is increasing even though crime in the city is down 14% overall (ibid). In 2013, there were 32,794 domestic violence-related calls made to the Metropolitan Police department, an increase of nearly 1,000 calls from 2012. The number of civil protection orders sought by victims increased seven percent from 2012 to 2013, according to data from the Office of the Attorney General.

But despite this growing need, the number of safe places for victims to find refuge can't keep pace. On one day in 2013, 553 victims were served by local domestic violence service providers, a 24% increase compared to the same one-day census count in 2012, but another 52 requests for services went unmet, with 77% of these unmet requests being for housing (NNEDV Census: Domestic Violence Counts, 2014).

In fact, family homelessness in the District is on the rise in general. Based on the Washington Council of Government's Annual Point-in-time count of homelessness in the DC region for 2014, the number of homeless families increased 25% in 2013, a trend that was confirmed in the Community Foundation report, which noted that, "four in five homeless adults in families were female (and the majority were single parents)."

Local and national domestic violence advocates all report that a lack of safe housing options is one of the leading reasons why people in abusive relationships are unable to leave and achieve safety for themselves and their children. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, in fact, domestic violence is a major cause of homelessness among women in the U.S. (2014).

Which is what made the report on July 15 concerning the squalid conditions at the city's primary family homeless shelter so appalling ("DC Family Homeless Shelter beset by dysfunction, decay", July 15, 2014). The fact that $13 million/year is spent to house families in a place that is clearly unsuitable for habitation, has been allowed to fall into complete disrepair, and subjects its residents to trauma and pestilence as a result, speaks volumes about the city's short-sighted and scornful attitude toward homeless women and children - many of whom have already survived suffering and violence at the hands of other people in their lives only to face it again at D.C. General.

Programs like the District Alliance for Safe Housing (DASH - www.dashdc.org) offer victims safe housing and options to move forward with their lives. But according to the Community Foundation report, there's still a gap of more than 22,000 affordable housing units for extremely low income residents, and this gap is creating a bottleneck at D.C. General and throughout the housing continuum. And this, coupled with decreased resources and increased demand, means that for many survivors, there simply is nowhere to turn.

People may say that "the devil you know is better than the devil you don't". But for low-income victims of domestic violence in the District, that certainly isn't true. The twelve victims of domestic violence homicide in the city this year faced the devil head-on. It's the city that can, and should, be better than that.