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To Curb Domestic Violence, Start With Housing

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A safe and stable home is essential to ending violence against women

When lawmakers in March reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act--the landmark legislation that guarantees certain rights and protections for survivors of domestic violence--they expanded a rule to bar landlords from evicting survivors from any publicly-supported home.

The rule might seem arcane, but it marks a significant step forward in our fight to eradicate violence against women, in part because it acknowledges the critical link between housing stability and domestic abuse.

Without a safe and stable home, survivors of domestic violence have little chance of escaping abusive environments and rebuilding their lives. Extensive research shows that survivors often stay in abusive relationships simply because they have nowhere else to go.

At the same time, domestic violence is a leading cause of unstable housing situations. According to a 2005 survey of service providers across the country, 28 percent of all housing denials and 11 percent of all evictions were the direct result of domestic violence. And between 22 and 57 percent of homeless women report that domestic or sexual violence was the immediate cause of their homelessness, depending on the study.

To be sure, domestic violence is a large and complicated problem that can only be solved through widespread social and cultural changes. But often simple solutions--such as providing a stable place to live--can have a profound impact.

That's what worked for Ms. P., a 32-year-old mother of three in New York City. After fleeing an abusive situation last year, Ms. P. and her children moved in and out of four domestic violence shelters and one homeless shelter, searching for a safe place to stay.

"You wake up one day and you cannot come back to your own home, then you have to move from borough to borough," Ms. P. told us. "You can't keep a job like that, and that's not good for your children. It's so unstable. It's mentally, physically exhausting," she said.

At her lowest point, Ms. P. considered entrusting her children in someone else's care. "Not because I didn't love them, because I was tired ... looking at them going through moving ... from domestic violence shelter to homeless shelter," she said.

After about a year of searching, Ms. P. and her children found a permanent home in the Bronx through New Destiny, a nonprofit that provides housing and services to victims of domestic violence and their children in New York City. Today she's working more hours as a nurse's aide at a local hospital. Her two-year-old baby goes to daycare nearby. Her other two kids are happier than ever, attending school just a few blocks away from their apartment.

And for the first time in years, Ms. P. is looking forward to the future. She's in school part time, with hopes of getting a promotion and one day buying her own home. "I want to be more than a nurse's aide," she said. "When your mind is stressed about where to sleep and you're not comfortable, you cannot learn ... So that's my next step."

The newly reauthorized Violence Against Women Act is a crucial source of funding for domestic violence shelters and other housing programs, but it's only the beginning. Organizations like New Destiny keep their doors open through a medley of private and public funding sources, including Low-Income Housing Tax Credits and grants through federal housing programs.

Unfortunately, much of this funding is at risk due to steep budget cuts in the coming year, in addition to massive cuts already enacted from recent austerity measures. For example, over 750,000 survivors of domestic violence accessed VAWA-funded programs last year. As many as 100,000 women will not receive these life-saving resources next year due to mandatory cuts called "sequestration," including over 70,000 who will lose housing-related services.

Simply put, we cannot hope to solve this problem without devoting appropriate resources to it. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, violence against women dropped 64 percent between 1995 and 2005--the decade after the initial VAWA was signed into law--but has stayed relatively constant since. We've made meaningful strides over the past 18 years, but we need new solutions and a sustained commitment to move the dial further.

We can start by ensuring that every survivor has a safe and stable place to call home. "Today I can wake up, I can kiss my children and go to work, and come back home happy," Ms. P. said in our interview. "Home is everything."

Terri Ludwig is the President and CEO of Enterprise Community Partners, a leading national provider of the development capital and expertise it takes to create decent, affordable homes in thriving communities.