WOMEN
01/14/2016 11:43 am ET Updated Jan 14, 2016

When Women Must Choose Between Abuse And Homelessness

One New York City nonprofit is trying to make it easier for domestic violence survivors to leave their partners.
A once-homeless domestic violence survivor looks out the window of her apartment building.
Melissa Jeltsen/Huffington Post
A once-homeless domestic violence survivor looks out the window of her apartment building.

NEW YORK -- Even the baby, at 7 months old, seemed to know something wasn’t right. She cried and trembled, inconsolable. Her big brother, only 5, was tense. Their mother was scared and on the run, and they could feel it.

Lily, whose real name has been changed to protect her identity, had recently ended a relationship with her daughter’s father and things had turned ugly fast. He began stalking her, she said, constantly texting and threatening to take her life. She wasn’t safe at her mom’s house in Brooklyn, but she didn’t have enough money to rent an apartment on her own. So she packed as much as she could physically carry while toting two children, called a domestic violence hotline for referral to a shelter, and got on the train.

"You don’t know what location you are going to. You don’t even know what borough you are going to," Lily told The Huffington Post. "You can’t tell your friends or your family. Everything is uprooted."

In this way, like countless others before them, Lily and her kids became homeless. It’s estimated that 1 in 4 women in the U.S. will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. While the public often wonders why women don’t leave abusive partners, the answer can often be as simple as “And where would they go?” Domestic violence is the third leading cause of homelessness among families nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"Families that become homeless due to domestic violence often face challenges that other homeless populations may not have to confront," said Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. "They may require critical safety measures, such as a confidential location, and it’s likely they will need trauma support. There is also the unfortunate reality that people sometimes stay with an abuser because they don’t have access to the money they need to get them into a safer situation."

Lily spent the next year shuffling between emergency and transitional shelters in New York City before she once again had a stable place to call home. She now lives in a sleek, modern housing complex in the Bronx built by New Destiny Housing -- the only nonprofit in the city providing low-income rental housing specifically for domestic violence survivors.

You don’t know what location you are going to. You don’t even know what borough you are going to. Lily, on fleeing to a domestic violence shelter

The building she lives in is one of 11 sites New Destiny Housing operates for domestic violence survivors coming out of the shelter system. Many of the buildings are divided 50-50 between domestic violence survivors and other low-income individuals, and tenants usually pay about 30 percent of their income toward rent. 

"We really focus on what happens after crisis," said New Destiny Housing’s executive director, Carol Corden. "We are looking at long-term stability and safety, and how we can help survivors achieve that."

In New York, there is a robust but short-term shelter system for domestic violence survivors fleeing an abusive partner. The city has 45 facilities at undisclosed locations across all five boroughs, and they assist almost 9,000 survivors and children a year.

Survivors can stay in emergency shelters for up to 180 days. After that, they may place into transitional family shelter units, where families can stay indefinitely. But there are only a tiny number of those units available. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has a plan to more than double them, bringing the total to 683. But in a city of 8 million people, it’s simply not enough to meet the need.

"We are really concerned with what happens when survivors leave that system," Corden said. "There is often no place for them to go."

From the outside, Lily's building looks like any other apartment complex, except for the cameras trained on the front entrance. In fact, there are cameras all over the building, including in the elevators and in front of the apartment doors. No one opens the door to strangers. When survivors move into the building, they develop a safety plan with the on-site staff person, so that their abusers don’t find out where they live.

More than just security, the building offers support services specific to the needs of domestic violence survivors. Staff members offer counseling, employment coaching, workshops on financial literacy and referrals to specialists who can help women with legal assistance and job training.

There’s a children’s room, a playground and weekly events that tenants can choose to attend. The key, Corden explained, is to help families feel connected to their new community. Women may move in without knowing anyone else in the building, or even the borough. They have to start from scratch -- finding daycare and schooling for their kids, health care providers, new jobs -- and they can feel very alone, she said.

"Many domestic violence survivors have been isolated, and have had their networks controlled and, in some cases, completely cut by their batterers," Corden said. "One of the first things we try to do is create a sense of an open, communal environment where people get a chance to get to know their neighbors. It’s really an attempt to get people connected to other people."

Lily has lived in New Destiny housing for three years. 

She said it's impossible to overstate how much it helped her to have affordable and safe long-term housing. She isn't scared anymore. Her kids are both thriving. And the Bronx now feels like home. 

"People who come from domestic violence, they are hurt, they are scared, their kids have been through trauma," she said. "Having permanent housing, you don’t have to worry. Everything is starting to slowly but surely become rooted and settled."

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Melissa Jeltsen covers domestic violence and other issues related to women's health, safety and security. Tips? Feedback? Send an email or follow her on Twitter.

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