We stayed because we had nowhere else to go.
Even at age ten, I understood that terrible truth about why we continued to live in the home of my mom’s abuser. Today, I’m a housing justice organizer and it’s not lost on me how inextricably linked housing insecurity and domestic violence are.
Housing insecurity wasn’t new to our family. My first home was a trailer in a very wealthy resort town in Colorado, where my dad cooked and my mom cleaned condos while also working at my brother’s and my daycare in order to reduce the cost of tuition. My parents were just two of the millions of people who prop up tourism industries across the United States, but can’t afford to live anywhere remotely close to the fancy second or third vacation homes they work in.
My mom brought my brother and me to Minnesota when I was two, and we stayed at my aunt’s house for six months until we were able to get a Section 8 voucher and food stamps. We moved into an apartment, and while we didn’t have a lot, I remember a largely joyful, loving upbringing.
After the birth of my other sibling, my mom began a relationship with the man who would become her abuser. The years we spent surviving his abuse were at least partly due to the housing security he provided for our family and — literally — held over our heads.
Housing insecurity feeds abuse
October is Domestic Violence Awareness month, but all year round the problems of housing insecurity and domestic violence go hand in hand. People may get or stay in housing with an abusive partner because they can’t afford to go elsewhere. Survivors get evicted, for example, because of constant yelling or loud noises from their abuser.
Once evicted, it becomes exponentially more difficult to obtain housing. In fact, it only takes a landlord filing an eviction against you — even if the situation is resolved and you don’t actually get evicted — for it to show up on your record and credit history for up to 10 years.
When women report abuse, or police arrive at the scene of an incident of domestic violence, survivors have the potential to experience a “dual arrest” or be charged and convicted for a coerced crime. This subsequent criminalization creates even more barriers to securing a job, home, or even retaining custody of your child. It becomes an unending cycle.
In fact, the Vera Institute reports that, “nearly 60 percent of formerly incarcerated people who live on the street because of barriers to housing are rearrested within the very first year after being released.” These types of experiences place burden upon burden to an already traumatized person, creating a pit which is difficult to crawl out of.
Even after my siblings, mom and I fled that abusive household, the precious resources we needed to pay for rent and childcare went to petitioning for an order of protection [restraining order], getting new phone numbers, and moving. One of the only things that kept us afloat was a program hard won by housing justice organizers in the Twin Cities which allowed any reduction in our entitlements to be used for the downpayment of a house.
Survivors of color face even more barriers
Research shows that women — especially Black, brown and Indigenous women — and LGBTQ folks are disproportionately impacted due to ongoing systemic inequities that trap them in abusive situations.
I have seen these racial disparities play out in my organizing. When I organized in South Carolina in 2018, my community saw upwards of 55 evictions filed every single day, and a municipal court judge confirmed that more than 90% of the evictions that came before her were that of Black women, more often than not with children.
Safe, stable housing is the cornerstone of every community, and without it, a lot more starts to crumble. Children fall behind in school, jobs are harder to come by, and poverty follows the next generation.
Both housing insecurity and discrimination deepened during the pandemic, and some corporate landlords, as detailed in this NPR report, filed evictions against Black tenants four times more often than white tenants for falling behind in rent. And a recent report by the University of Minnesota found that landlord-related forced moves were 1.2 times more likely to report intimate partner violence 6 months later.
Grassroots organizations are winning housing solutions
Recognizing how linked housing insecurity and domestic violence are points us to solutions that need to address these issues simultaneously. In other words, we cannot hope to prevent violence if we don’t address our housing crisis.
Centering race and gender justice, power-building organizations across the nation are leading the way on this work to win more safe, affordable housing for our communities.
We need more affordable homes for those at the lowest incomes and Housing Trust Funds (HTF) are proven to do just that. Over 800 HTFs exist across the United States, and in 2021 alone, Community Change supported grassroots organizations to advance local housing trust funds in 27 jurisdictions in 20 states. Our partners, in places like Savannah, Knoxville, Kansas City, and Cincinnati, secured nearly $66M in 10 jurisdictions, including 5 jurisdictions that established new HTFs.
We also need more robust and expansive renters’ rights and tenant protections, like those developed by KC Tenants.
Guaranteed legal representation in the case of eviction proceedings is key. In Washington state, Resident Action Project (RAP), in conjunction with the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, successfully advocated the passage of laws that provide the right to counsel in eviction court, the first ever state to do so.
Meaningful rent stabilization measures, such as the policy passed in St. Paul, Minnesota after a successful campaign led by Housing Equity Now St. Paul (HENS), can also help prevent families from being trapped in abusive situations.
This world often feels hopeless, but when we build the power of organized people and fight for our communities, we win. Like water to drink and air to breathe, a safe place to call home is a basic human need.
In honor of Domestic Violence Awareness month, and for every person impacted by violence, let’s keep fighting for the systemic changes that can prevent abusive situations like the one I faced as a child.