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Twin Cities affordable housing shortages affecting domestic violence survivors

Charlotte, a domestic abuse survivor, in St. Paul Thursday, April 5, 2018. Charlotte considers herself fortunate having found a safe home after years of moving to avoid her abuser. She has seen how other women fleeing abuse struggle to find housing. At left is a quilt made by the elder women support group, who created patches for the tree which reflect where they're at in their healing or where they want to be. (Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press)

ST. PAUL — Charlotte has moved six times since her ex-boyfriend hit her so hard she tumbled down a flight of stairs.

She has been able to rely on programs to help women like her flee abuse. There has always been a bed for her and her two children.

"I've seen so many other women (struggle to find a safe place.) I feel very lucky," Charlotte said. Some of the women who think they have no place to go end up going back to their abusers.

Housing is the No. 1 need for domestic violence survivors, many leaving behind their only stable option for a home. In the Twin Cities, high rents and low vacancies have made it even tougher, advocates say. A recent survey found that 29 percent of Minnesota homeless have experienced domestic violence.

The report, a first-of-its-kind survey, illustrates how abuse survivors are falling through the cracks. Out of the 2,216 homeless who have experienced domestic violence, 991 were told there were no available housing resources or shelter.

So, 58 percent returned to their abuser.

Charlotte has asked that her full name not be used out of fear her abuser may find her.

The dilemma

Ho Nguyen from the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women (MCBW) spearheaded the report. She said many don't realize the needs of abuse survivors and homeless people often converge.

"Housing and homelessness in itself is a really large and complicated system. And then you have domestic and sexual violence that's also a large and complicated system." Nguyen said. "So those two worlds really never necessarily intersected in a way that fully supported victims and survivors."

Nguyen says a shortage of affordable housing is not a new issue and that a lack of subsidized units in the Twin Cities has given rise to an insidious trend: overextended shelter stays for women.

Leaders for St. Paul's Women's Advocates, the nation's first domestic violence shelter, said it is heartbreaking when staff has to turn down women and families fleeing violence because the shelter is almost always full.

"We've had a lot of families calling us back and saying 'We've been sleeping in our cars for a couple days until there's an opening,' " Mandie Kender, director of programs and services, said. "It's a very sad situation."

While the MCBW and the Office of Justice Programs, which fund Minnesota's domestic violence shelters and programs, do not have data showing this trend, both said they have heard stories of families extending their shelter stays because of limited available housing.

The average stay in an emergency shelter is 30 to 60 days, according to Nguyen. To compensate for the overflow of families and women staying for months on end, she said some shelters either use bed mats in common areas or tell people they have to leave.

"A lot of times they do have to kick them out," Nguyen said. "Because if you stay at a shelter for five to six months and you still can't get housing, at some point there's literally nothing else anybody can do."

The barriers

Those lucky enough to land space in a shelter still face multiple hurdles before finding their own home.

Financial abuse is the most common tactic in violent relationships. Victims' funds and credit are often ruined by abusers. Though survivors can apply for Section 8 Housing vouchers to help pay rent, wait lists are often years long.

And in addition, there is limited affordable housing to rent in the first place.

Lauren Rimestad, director of development at Women's Advocates, said affordable housing is also moving further away from urban centers, creating problems such as finding reliable transportation or changing school districts.

To address the skyrocketing number of Minnesota households struggling to find affordable housing (an increase of 58 percent since 2000), Gov. Mark Dayton formed the Governor's Task Force on Housing in December.

Task force members include housing advocates and organizations, local mayors, legislators, real estate agents and a representative for veterans. Missing from the list: A representative for domestic violence.

"There are definitely important voices that are not at the table, but are no less important," said task force co-chair Acooa Ellis. "Our intent is to create multiple avenues influencing the final set of recommendations."

MCBW Executive Director Liz Richards said the lack of a representative shows the "disconnect" between the housing and domestic violence fields. The coalition, though, is monitoring the task force and providing input.

Ellis said the task force will present an initial set of recommendations for housing April 20 and plans to arrive at a final set by the end of July. She encourages those interested or impacted by the housing market to come to a task force forum or contact the group itself.

Seeking solutions

Each year, the MCBW releases the Femicide Report: a compilation of Minnesotans killed by domestic violence.

Included in the 2017 report are recommendations to improve housing and economic stability for survivors. One of the suggestions: Cross-train domestic violence programs and homeless programs.

Advocates also say that more affordable housing units are needed across the board. More housing would lift the burden of trying to find a safe home for the women fleeing abuse.

"It would be huge because if that problem was solved, then lengths of stay at this shelter and at other shelters would be shorter," Women's Advocates Executive Director Estelle Brouwer said.

But advocates and shelters noted that simply adding more affordable housing is not as important as stopping the cycle of violence itself.

"If we're not actually trying to stop abuse in our communities, then it doesn't matter if you have all these homes," Kender said. "They're going to get into new homes and there's going to be somebody else that's getting abused."

Looking to the future

Charlotte said she hopes her children will no longer have to worry that her abuser is around, and they are able to "live free."

"I don't even know what that's like anymore," she said.

She is currently part of Safe at Home, an address confidentiality program run by the Minnesota Secretary of State. Abuse survivors are assigned a Safe at Home post office box to use as their legal address, protecting them from their abusers tracing their whereabouts. All mail is forwarded from the box to those in hiding.

In the years since the violence that culminated in her being strangled until she passed out, Charlotte said she has had time to heal.

She has served on the MCBW Survivor Advisory Council for four years and was featured in the documentary "Finding Jenn's Voice," a film about intimate partner violence against pregnant women.

And despite consistently having to uproot her family for safety reasons and knowing little things like home pizza delivery are no longer an option, she considers herself lucky because of her home and job. She has seen how housing is one of the biggest barriers for women fleeing violence.

"I feel safe," she said. " I am so lucky and fortunate."

For help

  • For those in crisis and need of safety from domestic violence, the St. Paul & Ramsey County Domestic Abuse Intervention Project can be reached 24 hours a day at 651-645-2824.
  • For those outside of St. Paul, the Minnesota Domestic Violence Crisis Line number is 1-866-223-1111.
  • Women's Advocates 24-hour Crisis Line can be reached at 651-227-8284.
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