October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and it's an important occasion for spotlighting this critical issue. Violence, both domestic and public, is a daily reality for too many Americans, and it's especially acute for people who are poor or homeless.
Domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness -- for women, in particular, as well as unaccompanied youth. In 2011, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported that 13 percent of homeless women surveyed cited domestic violence or abuse as the primary cause of their homelessness. As noted in a new report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 43 percent of unaccompanied homeless youth report leaving home after being beaten by a caretaker, and 25 percent report that a caretaker requested sexual activity.
For many, the only choice may be between continued abuse and fleeing their home. Fear of homelessness may deter victims who lack adequate financial resources of their own, or whose finances have been compromised by their abuser, from leaving. Indeed, for those who lack the resources to secure alternate housing, the result may be homelessness -- and further violence.
In the absence of sufficient safe, affordable housing or stable shelter, many survivors join other homeless people living in public places. There, they face increased exposure to violence, as indicated by the shocking number of crimes committed against them: Homeless persons are the target of hate crimes, and rape is disturbingly prevalent for homeless women.
Life without safe housing presents other dangers, too, for both women and men. Without a street address, it is difficult to maintain a legal identity, making it challenging or impossible to access vital resources such as health care. And without safe storage or refrigeration, it may be impossible to maintain medication regimens. Illnesses, both chronic and acute, are much more prevalent among homeless people, and life expectancy is shorter. Life without housing is an assault on mind, body, and dignity.
In 2006, following advocacy by the Law Center and its allies, Congress amended the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to include important new housing rights for survivors in public and assisted housing. As amended, the law provides that survivors cannot be evicted based on the actions of their abusers (such as disturbing the peace or destroying property, conduct that often accompanies abuse) and allows them to transfer to a new unit on an expedited basis. For covered survivors, the amended law provides vital new rights that offer a route out of domestic violence, while protecting against homelessness and the risk of continued violence that comes with it.
Legislation to strengthen VAWA's protections and expand them to cover more survivors is now pending in Congress -- but stalled due to election year politics. Advocates are pushing for action following the election.
Enactment of this bill would be a critical step towards preventing homelessness for survivors of domestic violence. And realizing the human right to housing for all homeless and at-risk people would go further, ensuring safety and dignity for all.