As domestic violence forces women, children into homelessness, shelters work to help
Darlene Greene, 50, had heard, "I'm sorry, I won't do it again," countless times from her husband, but the abuse didn't stop.
"I wanted to believe it because it was easier than starting over," she said. "I was tired, scared and frustrated."
It came to the point where her 15-year-old son was sleeping outside the couples' bedroom door with a baseball bat and telling clergy he was going to kill her husband in his sleep. Greene's sister, aunt and first cousin all lost their lives due to domestic violence, and she came within inches of following the same path.
She considers herself lucky to have survived that relationship and is thankful that her mom "didn't have to bury another daughter." She ended the abuse by going to the house of a friend her husband didn't know about. If not for that haven, she could have ended up on the streets like many domestic violence victims, largely because her husband spent all the money she earned.
Studies and experts clearly show a strong correlation between domestic violence and homelessness. The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence examined the importance of domestic violence shelters, often the only refuge for abused women, by conducting a 24-hour census. Its study found that 64 percent of unmet requests from victims were for housing. Overall, 12.3 percent of the sheltered homeless population are domestic violence survivors, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's 2010 annual homelessness assessment report.
Abused women often have to flee their residence and are at continued risk of economic and emotional abuse from their partner. Domestic violence shelters can often be lifesaving for victims, but budget cuts, overcrowding and limited resources present stark challenges for their future.
Fight and flight
Domestic violence is one of the primary causes of homelessness for women and children, said Anne Menard, executive director of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence. Women often flee suddenly without a plan and find themselves in physical and economic trouble and without housing stability.
"People have to leave their existing home on an emergency basis to escape potential mayhem and possible death," said Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. "People are running from violence, and that is the immediate cause of their homelessness."
When people, primarily women, find themselves in an abusive relationship, they may not always have clear-cut choices, Menard said. One choice is to leave the abusive relationship and seek new housing, but this requires some financial stability and independence.
Many women are cut off from their friends or family or are afraid to seek shelter with them because the abusive partner can track them down more easily, Menard said.
"It's important to realize how complex their choices are," she said. "Abusers often isolate their partners, so many people may not have the social support network that we take for granted."
This can create a vicious cycle. While many women become homeless due to violence, they will often encounter more trouble once on the streets. Women who are homeless are also at greater risk for other types of violence, including sexual assault, Menard said.
Greene encountered all types of violence and abuse, including physical and emotional, in her relationship that nearly took her life. One day her enraged husband threw her across the room and she nearly hit her head on the edge of their fireplace, which she believed would have killed her.
After that incident, Greene sought protection at a friend's house that her husband did not know about. This way, he could not track her down or harm anyone else close to her. Greene encouraged women in similar situations to take this route, if it is available to them.
Greene now manages the Ina Mae Greene Foundation, a nonprofit organization in memory of her lost relatives, based in Dallas. She is also releasing a book, "Blood Relatives," that chronicles her and her family's experience with domestic violence.
Her foundation members work with women in the community to raise awareness about relationship violence and help them avoid a common peril of domestic abuse: homelessness.
"We want to make women aware of what their options are," she said. "Many women may not have anywhere to go."
Often times an angry or abusive ex-partner will attempt to take back control of the relationship through financial manipulation and sabotage. This can include destroying credit or sabotaging future job prospects for the women, as well as emptying a joint bank account of all assets, said Rene Renick, vice president of programs and emerging issues at the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
Because of this, she stressed the importance of maintaining financial independence or having a general plan when exiting an abusive relationship.
"Physical safety is really important but so is financial safety," she said. "Protect yourself by knowing where your assets are before it gets to the point that you need a court order."
Menard referred to this as economic abuse and said ruined credit or damaged property by an abusive partner often leads to housing instability for women who are not financially independent.
Opening a separate and personal savings account or even saving change received at the grocery store can be a safe way to save money that does not alert the partner and allows for some financial stability in the event of separation, Renick suggested.
"Too many women leave a relationship and then a couple days later find that their bank account has been drained," she said. "Save anything you can and put it aside in a way that's safe."
Abusers even go as far as to call landlords to prevent their partner from being accepted in a new living situation, Berg said.
"It usually is a very domineering kind of situation," he said. "The man wants to take away any chance the women has of living independently. That makes it really hard to maintain housing stability."
Domestic violence shelters
Domestic violence shelters differ from homeless shelters in that they generally have more specific resources for victims of domestic violence. Their main role is to provide an immediate safe place for women who are fleeing from domestic violence, Berg said.
Domestic violence shelters also provide counseling and resources that can help prevent violence from occurring again.
"We have services that didn't exist in the last 30 years," Menard said. "There has been greater collaboration between homeless shelters and domestic violence shelters, and that is an amazingly important response."
Experts cite the economic downturn as a problem for domestic violence shelters. Renick said funding needs to be a priority because programs have been affected by reductions in state budgets. Domestic violence shelters are also seeing fewer donations lately, but more demand for their services, she said.
Overcrowding, especially in smaller cities, also becomes a major issue. If a woman's life is not in immediate danger, she will likely be put on a waiting list for domestic violence shelter services, Greene said.
When women are turned away from or cannot access domestic violence shelters, they often end up homeless, Menard said.
"When these services don't exist or aren't accessible, it makes it more difficult for someone dealing with homelessness," she said. "Some programs are forced to turn victims away, and these women end up under bridges and on the streets."
Deciding to leave an abusive relationship is a very important and personal decision, Renick said. She encourages women to critically identify their long-term situation before making a decision.
"Victims really are the best experts on their own lives," she said. "But you need to know what's out there and what resources are available."
If a person becomes a victim of domestic violence, Renick suggested they first call the domestic violence hotline at 1-800-799-7233. This will provide general information about domestic violence and about local help and resources. Berg echoed her advice.
"The No. 1 thing is to be in touch with a domestic violence hotline," Berg said. "Every situation is different, but you need to get some help, and the help really is available."
There also needs be a shift culturally in the way domestic violence is approached and viewed, Greene said.
"We have to re-educate our community about this crime," she said. "It's not a personal family problem. It's not a love triangle or a fit or rage. It's against the law."
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