Safe Housing Is More Than Just a There There

04/05/2016 04:51 pm ET Updated Apr 05, 2017

This month I have been closely following NPR's Pam Fessler's special report on eviction. As each segment airs, we hear one woman after another share her personal story of the horrors of housing instability. In Fessler's report on March 30, "In A High-Rent World, Affordable And Safe Housing Is Hard To Come By," she mentions that women and children make up the large majority of the extremely poor who end up in housing court facing eviction. Yet an obvious question remains - why women and children?

The answer is buried in the headline -- safe housing is hard to come by. Specifically, safe housing for the millions of mostly women and children who are facing eviction or are homeless as a result of the domestic or sexual violence they experience in their homes. This is because the very nature of the violence directly impacts victims' housing stability, often long after they've managed to escape it.

Victims often find it difficult to pass the most basic background checks that landlords conduct when vetting applications for housing. Poor credit and ruined rental histories are often the consequence of abusers running up credit card bills or lying about paying rent, utilities, childcare and other bills. Lack of steady employment is typical for victims who are often forced to miss work as a result of the violence, or are fired as a result of stalking and harassment that occurs at the workplace.

Victims are vulnerable to housing discrimination as well. The most common cases of this occur when landlords evict victims from housing due to repeated calls to the police or property damage caused by the abuser. Many low-income victims also stand to lose subsidized or other affordable housing as a result of lease or voucher policy violations committed by the abuser.

With the overwhelming lack of safe housing options in this country, it's no wonder that so many victims are forced to choose between living with abuse or homelessness. But what does the term "safe housing" really mean for these women? We asked this question to hundreds of survivors and advocates throughout Washington, D.C. when I founded the District Alliance for Safe Housing (DASH) in 2006.

Victims shared examples of housing discrimination at every level. They talked about being denied access to homeless shelters because of their status as victims and denied access to domestic violence shelters because there were so few available spaces. Others talked about being required to comply with requirements which presented barriers or safety threats, such as obtaining protection orders, agreeing to information sharing with other programs, or participating in mandatory programming which conflicted with employment or other responsibilities.

This feedback informed our approach to safe housing - predicated on the beliefs that housing is a human right; allows those housed to be self-determining; and, is flexible and responsive to individuals' needs and circumstances. Safe Housing means more than just clean and habitable living space; it means living conditions which don't present an ongoing threat to its inhabitants due to violence, economic instability, or arbitrary mandates.

DASH works to create a culture where safe housing is a human right shared by everyone. This means building alliances with housing and homeless advocates, policy makers, landlords, housing developers and victims to create more safe housing. It means developing strategies that include advocating for victims' housing rights, creating accessible safe housing programs, and using flexible funding to help survivors maintain housing stability.

Fundamentally, domestic and sexual violence is a housing and economic justice issue, and vice versa. The scarcity of safe, affordable housing can be directly linked to this disconnect. No one should become homeless due to abuse, but as Ms. Fessler happened to learn, all too many do.