Alternatives to Shelter for Victims of Domestic Violence—A discussion of three models by Carol Corden, Executive Director
Domestic violence is acknowledged to be one of the primary generators of family homelessness in New York City. New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA) operates a specialized confidential emergency and transitional system specifically for domestic violence survivors at imminent risk who have no other safe housing options that serves approximately 11,000 adults and children a year. In addition, New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) estimates that 30% of the families housed in temporary shelter in the general homeless system are fleeing or have histories of domestic violence. These numbers, while large, are dwarfed by the number of low-income victims of domestic violence who cannot or will not use shelter but who are at risk of continued abuse.
Domestic violence has continued at a steady rate despite the decline in other types of crime in New York City. It is particularly threatening for low-income people of color, often women with children, who are, year after year, more likely to be victims of homicide in New York City due to intimate partner violence.
The City’s main response to the crisis of domestic violence has been to increase the emergency and transitional housing available to families and individuals at imminent risk of danger and without a safe alternative to their current housing. Prevention and long-term solutions to the problem have received much less attention and far fewer resources (Independent Budget Office, Citywide Spending on Domestic Violence Report, NYC 2007).
While shelter is the best and most appropriate destination for many victims of domestic violence, it is not the only answer nor is it a long-term answer to ending the cycle of violence.
In addition to shelter, the City needs to consider other approaches intended to reduce the number of people who must use shelter and to ensure that safe, stable permanent housing options are available to survivors post-shelter along with services to support their long-term safety and stability.
Below are three evidence- and/or practice-informed models tailored to the needs of low-income domestic violence survivors who are homeless or at risk of homelessness—1. alternatives to shelter, 2. rapid rehousing/housing first, and 3. service-enriched permanent housing. The last two models—rapid rehousing/housing first and service-enriched housing—have been and can be adapted for a variety of homeless or at risk sub-populations (e.g., low-income seniors, runaway youth, homeless veterans, or very low-income families) by varying the extent and type of services provided.
1. ALTERNATIVES TO SHELTER
Prevention strategies help survivors of domestic violence avoid shelter by assisting them to remain safely in place (“safety in place”) or to relocate quickly to safe, affordable permanent housing (“rapid rehousing” or “housing first”). These approaches recognize that many survivors will not or cannot use shelter. Many survivors are concerned about dividing their families since older male children may not be welcomed or may refuse to live in shelter; they may wish to remain close to their community for cultural or religious reasons; they may feel uncomfortable in shelter because of their sexual preferences and gender identity; they may wish to retain their job; and/or they may be pressured by children who do not want to leave their schools and friends. Yet, remaining may put them at risk of continued domestic violence and possibly homelessness because of their current housing situation (e.g., living with the batterer or in an unstable or temporary situation). Both safety in place and rapid rehousing approaches, as applied to domestic violence survivors who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, must be informed by the concern for the survivor’s safety above all as well as the recognition of trauma in his/her life.
SAFETY IN PLACE
Under the safety in place model, families and individuals experiencing domestic violence may be able to remain in their current housing if they can do so safely. The advantages of this model are clear. The batterer is excluded from the home through an Order of Protection or Exclusion, arrest or incarceration, or is removed through other means. Survivors—usually a single parent with children—can remain in their communities and close to social networks. Employed survivors can continue working, and their children can continue to attend their local schools or day-care centers. The trauma caused by domestic violence is not exacerbated by a forced move to shelter or doubling up with relatives or friends. An additional benefit is that this model is considerably less expensive than shelter, especially in New York City where housing homeless families now costs on average $62,000 a year (2017 Mayor’s Management Report, p. 209).
- National Example.
The Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV) has conducted two domestic violence Housing First pilot programs at various locations in Washington State with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. WSCADC helped participating groups in urban and rural areas adapt the Housing First model to meet the needs of survivors of domestic violence. Housing First focuses on moving individuals into stable housing first and then providing the supports needed, usually for a limited period of time, to rebuild their lives. WSCADC’s Housing First pilots focused on helping survivors to either remain in their homes or move rapidly into safe, stable housing while offering advocacy and services for as long as needed.
The evaluation of the domestic violence Housing First Model showed promising results. The majority of families (there were 171 survivors in the first pilot cohort) reported accessing and retaining hosing at 6, 12, and 18 months after program entry. They also reported increased safety and well-being. (Chris M. Sullivan and Linda Olsen, “Common Ground, complementary approaches: adapting the Housing First model for domestic violence survivors,” Housing and Society, June 12, 2017, p. 9)
Notably, half of the survivors participating in the domestic violence Housing First pilot expressed the desire to remain safely in either their current home or in a home they obtained immediately after fleeing an abuser but which they could not manage or afford long term. In some cases, this could be achieved with safety planning and financial assistance from WSCADV’s partner agencies.
- New York City Example.
HRA operates the Alternative to Shelter (ATS) program with a caseload of over 200 cases per month. Under the program, survivors with an Order of Protection, who can afford to pay housing expenses, may be able to remain in their current dwelling. The program provides the client with a personal electronic response alarm system linked to a local police precinct should any threat to the survivor arise. Survivors are also connected to appropriate support services.
ATS could be scaled up substantially if (1) an intensive safety assessment could be substituted for an Order of Protection and (2) financial assistance was available to assist survivors to maintain their housing. FHEPS B To Stay, a relatively new rental subsidy, may help eligible victims of domestic violence to remain in their current housing. A small investment by the City could assist others, not eligible for FHEPS B To Stay, to receive housing assistance to help them remain in permanent housing at a fraction of the cost of shelter.
2. RAPID REHOUSING/HOUSING FIRST
Rapid rehousing (RRH) is the provision of short-term rental assistance and services to help individuals and families avoid or quickly exit homelessness. RRH has been championed by U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as a preferred method of addressing family homelessness, including homelessness caused by “escaping domestic violence.” Under this model, homeless families are moved quickly into permanent housing, before they become homeless or as soon as possible after entering shelter, using rental vouchers or other assistance and then receive support services for a short period of time, usually up to six months. Rapid rehousing is presented as a “low barrier” program where families are given an opportunity in permanent housing, despite their income or negative credit history. In tighter, high-cost housing markets – such as San Francisco or New York City—this model has had to be adapted but the basic concept remains that transitioning quickly to permanent housing is far more desirable for households at risk of homelessness than shelter and far less expensive.
The core components of RRH include:
- Housing Identification — recruiting landlords to provide housing for RRH participants and providing advocacy to find and secure rental housing for low-income applicants
- Rent and Move-In Assistance — partially covering move-in costs, security deposits, as well as rental and/or utility payments
- Case Management and Services — providing time-limited but flexible case management and connecting participants to community-based resources
For domestic violence survivors, the RRH model—often called “Housing First”—is particularly appropriate. Some members of the survivor population have been made homeless by or placed at risk of homelessness because of domestic violence. In cases where they are still working, have a rental subsidy or active support systems, moving directly to other permanent housing is an option preferable to shelter, particularly when combined with access to social services in the community.
Rapid rehousing has not been widely used in New York City – largely because of the scarcity of affordable housing. However, it is another tool that could be adapted to reduce shelter use.
- National Examples
The two best-known examples of rapid rehousing/housing first models for domestic violence survivors come from the West Coast: Home Free in Portland, Oregon, and the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s (WSCADV) Housing First Pilot. Both have produced positive results and have been independently evaluated – Home Free by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and WSCADV’s pilot by Cris Sullivan, a researcher from Michigan State University, with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Four elements define the rapid rehousing/housing first model adapted by Home Free and WSCADV to serve victims of domestic violence:
- Survivor-driven mobile advocacy—Services are available in a variety of locations—not just in shelters or through Domestic Violence Hotlines and the underlying dynamic is that the survivor drives the process. Providers, using a trauma-informed approach, support the survivor to exercise agency and take control over their lives. Advocacy continues as long as survivors determine that they need support. This is a strengths-based, client-centered empowerment approach to domestic violence.
- Housing stability—Providers assist survivors to find and then retain safe, stable housing by offering a spectrum of housing options—including remaining in place if that can be accomplished safely and economically—and helping them negotiate the housing process (e.g., identifying potential housing, helping to prepare applications, looking at and accessing housing, determining affordability, assisting applicants to address potential barriers such as poor credit).
- Flexible financial assistance— The program offers short-term, modest but flexible financial assistance to support housing, employment, safety, child care, and other critical needs as determined by the survivor. This could include assistance with rent or security payments or other needs to help them maintain housing—e.g. money for car repairs to support the employment that permits survivors to pay rent.
- Community engagement— Service providers seek out and engage landlords, housing authorities, community-based programs, and others to educate them about domestic violence and form alliances, where possible, with them to provide more housing and service options.
- New York Examples
Two programs currently operating in New York City can be considered adaptations of the rapid rehousing model: Come Home NYC, a program operated by Enterprise Community Partners, assists working families in shelter (not necessarily domestic violence-involved) to obtain and retain affordable housing and HousingLink, an expanded pilot developed by New Destiny Housing Corporation in collaboration with the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, assists domestic violence victims at risk of homelessness using services at Family Justice Centers to link with safe permanent housing in the community. HousingLink has been evaluated, during its first three years of operation, by ActKnowledge, an evaluation and research center located at the CUNY Graduate Center.
- Come Home NYC. Enterprise Community Partners, in cooperation with DHS, Single Stop, and more than 25 private and nonprofit landlords, initiated this pilot in 2015 focused on connecting 300 homeless families earning 30% to 60% of AMI ($24,500 to $48,960) to affordable housing. The families served are in the general homeless population and are not necessarily domestic violence-involved. Come Home NYC reached its first milestone of placing 100 homeless families into permanent housing in the fall of 2016.
- HousingLink, an expanded pilot developed by New Destiny in collaboration with the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, assists domestic violence victims at risk of homelessness using services at Family Justice Centers to link with safe permanent housing in the community. HousingLink has been evaluated, during its first three years of operation, by ActKnowledge, an evaluation and research center located at the CUNY Graduate Center. HousingLink provides housing information, technical assistance, and linkages to housing for domestic violence clients receiving services at Family Justice Centers in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx. Clients at the Family Justice Centers include survivors who are in domestic violence shelters as well as survivors still living with abusers or in unstable housing situations. By the end of the third year in September 2017, the program, funded by DOJ-OVW, New York Community Trust, Mizuho, Wells Fargo and the New York City Council among others, had placed 42 households in safe, affordable housing operated by 21 for-profit and nonprofit landlords.The program expanded to the Queens FJC and, as of March 2018, had placed 64 families in permanent housing.All of the families placed have retained their housing—32% for over 1 year and 23% for almost 3 years. HousingLink pre-screens applicants for safety and assists families to prepare applications and select apartments. Households with significant barriers to housing (e.g., major credit issues, criminal or housing court records) receive Housing Action Plans and assistance mitigating the barriers. Using DOJ-OVW funding, the program is able to provide financial assistance for first month’s rent and security and for up to 6 months’ of modest rental assistance. The HousingLink Coordinator contacts families placed in housing for at least 6 months and provides referral services, at the Family Justice Centers or in the community, if necessary. HousingLink remains available to placed tenants as well as to landlords for any issues that may arise. The typical domestic violence household placed in housing is a woman of color with one or two children who is earning on average $27,678.
3. SERVICE-ENRICHED PERMANENT HOUSING
Service-enriched housing integrates service coordination into the operation and management of affordable rental housing for special-needs and/or low-income resident. It differs from classic supportive housing in that it is less service intense and can serve a variety of populations ranging from special needs populations (e.g., families headed by domestic violence survivors, child-welfare involved families, runaway and homeless youth, very low-income seniors) to low income families and individuals who do not present with any particular barriers to housing besides income. The expected beneficial outcomes are reduced homelessness, increased housing stability, reduced use of emergency rooms and hospitals, and improved health outcomes.
Permanent supportive housing, by contrast, is service-rich and typically targeted to individuals with the greatest barriers to independent living—chronically homeless persons with medical disabilities (e.g., mental illness, AIDS, substance abuse). This is an evidence-based model which has been extensively evaluated over 20+ years.
Permanent supportive housing nationally, and in New York City, has served individuals with medical disabilities—mostly men with no current family connections. The services provided on-site are intensive and include medical and health-related services (e.g., medication management) in addition to case management, employment readiness, activities of daily living, financial planning and budgeting services.
Service-enriched housing serves families as well as individuals and includes, at a minimum, a Services Coordinator who is available to tenants, part-time or full-time, to provide some direct assistance but also to help them connect to appropriate services in the community. The extent of programming and staffing varies depending upon the needs of the population served. Service-enriched housing for a special-needs population, such as low-income survivors of domestic violence, might have more extensive staffing and different programming than that for low-income families.
Service-enriched housing has been used by private affordable housing developers as a tool to improve the management of housing for low-income families and individuals. It has also been used by nonprofit housing developers seeking to improve the housing stability, health and well-being of both special needs and very low-income tenants.
- National Example. Mercy Housing, a 35-year old national organization that operates 48,000 units of affordable permanent housing in 24 states, develops service-enriched housing. Seventy per cent of Mercy Housing stock is housing for families and 70% of its projects have residential, project-based services. Mercy Housing’s goal is to provide services at all of its housing. Resident services are provided to support residents who are low-income and who have struggled with substance abuse, illness, trauma and isolation. Services are provided in the areas of health and wellness, financial stability, after-school time, housing stability, and community involvement.
- New York Example. New Destiny develops and operates service-enriched permanent housing for households headed by domestic violence survivors exiting the HRA domestic violence shelter system at four sites – 3 in the Bronx and 1 in Brooklyn- comprising 174 units and housing more than 450 adults and children. More than half of the units are set aside for low-income domestic violence survivors and their children from HRA-administered domestic violence shelters. The remaining units are occupied by low-income families and individuals from the community. The mix of households contributes to a non-institutional, non-stigmatizing environment that feels more normal to tenants and is more acceptable to the neighborhood.On site services are provided by, at a minimum, a full-time Tenant Support Coordinator and a part-time Children’s Activities Specialist. This team is supplemented by a Children and Family Services Coordinator with clinical experience who can assess children with special needs, support parents, and assist with referrals to appropriate community-based programs. The Children and Family Services Coordinator covers multiple sites. When funding permits, New Destiny also employs a Front Door Monitor at sites to cover some of the time when staff is not present. The Tenant Support Coordinator serves as an advocate, coach, and guide for tenants – sometimes providing direct services (e.g., safety planning and assistance with housing subsidies and other benefits) and sometimes linking tenants to off-site services for legal assistance, job training, and mental health needs. The Tenant Support Coordinator develops linkage agreements with external organizations such as the Urban Justice Center, the Art Therapy Program, the Financial Planners Association, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Dress for Success to bring services to the site as well as to encourage meaningful referrals to community-based programs including Homebase, Workforce 1, Grace Institute, Family Justice Centers. The Children’s Activities Specialist plans and implements activities for children and families (e.g., homework help, yoga, movie nights and field trips) while working closely with the Children and Family Services Coordinator to identify children with emotional and behavioral problems, developmental delays, and other needs. The Children and Family Services Coordinator maintains a caseload covering several sites simultaneously.
The goals of the services provided at New Destiny’s sites are assisting survivors to maintain their housing, preventing new incidents of domestic violence, supporting survivors to improve their economic situation, and keeping families together. Success is measured by housing stability; prevention of recurring domestic violence, improved economic status as indicated by involvement in education, training, or employment; and family unity as indicated by the number of open or closed ACS cases. The key traits of New Destiny’s service-enriched permanent housing model include:
- Services are voluntary and flexible – on site services are not mandated and are provided with a light touch. All tenants – previously homeless domestic violence survivors and the “general population”—are invited to activities such as resident meetings, workshops and social events in order to build community within the project by introducing tenants to one another as well as to the Tenant Support Coordinator and Children’s Activities Specialist. Identified needs – e.g., parenting support, substance abuse—can be addressed by bringing community resources to the site or referring tenants to external programs.
- Services are family-focused – services are available to adults AND children. Family dynamics have a major impact on the stability of the family. The parent’s ability to maintain employment, remain safe from an abuser, and maintain housing are impacted by children’s behavior, emotional problems and health issues. Children are also clearly affected by witnessing domestic violence, spending time in shelter, missing school and being isolated from friends and support networks.
- Services are trauma-informed – New Destiny’s programs are available to, and used by, residents from the general population as well as previously homeless domestic violence survivors but they are offered through the lens of domestic violence. They are tenant-driven, needs-based, and non-invasive and recognize the impact of trauma on the behaviors and responses of tenants (adults and children) who have experienced abuse.
In New York City, supportive housing developed under the NY/NY I, II, and III agreements and NYC 15/15 targets chronically homeless individuals with medical disabilities that pose substantial barriers to stability in permanent housing. Homeless families, who comprise almost 70% of those using shelter, are far less likely to qualify for supportive housing. According to the 2017 HUD NYC CoC Point In Time Count, only 1,354 of the total 14,245 homeless families in New York City were “chronically homeless” based on HUD’s definition. This represents only a small fraction of the families in the DHS and other NYC shelter systems.
While not all homeless families require supportive housing, many do need support in order to obtain and then retain permanent housing. A number of families are dealing with domestic violence and open or imminent child welfare cases in addition to the barriers of extremely low income, poor health, children who have emotional and developmental issues, low educational levels, and limited employment experience.
Currently, a few fortunate families may receive a rental subsidy to help them identify permanent housing, sometimes with a warm hand-off to a community-based social service organization. However, even for those families long-term stability is far from guaranteed given the complexity of the issues they face. Service-enriched housing—provided by mission-driven nonprofits such as New Destiny or by private developers with substantial set-asides of homeless households in their projects—is a low-cost and efficient way to ensure that more families can remain stably housed with positive outcomes for the projects and the families.