Domestic Violence Scars Unseen: Financial Insecurity and Homelessness
Roberta Bear awoke on a mid-October night to her romantic partner screaming about something he had found in her drawer. He beat her, just like he had done countless times throughout their 11 years together. He took all of her money and left. It was in that moment two years ago that Bear went to a neighbor and called the police.
“Finally I got tired of it and I had to say ‘no, you can’t come back here anymore,’” Bear said.
Like many other survivors of domestic violence, Bear was a victim of financial abuse. Her partner used to steal money from her bank account and take any money she had on her person.
“Anytime I came home I had to give him money,” Bear recalled.
That painful night when Bear finally reached out for help, her partner took the $40 she had earned selling Street Sense newspapers that day. Bear was grateful to find a network of support upon leaving the abusive relationship.
Finding housing as a survivor of domestic violence is one of the biggest hurdles, said Erin Hill, the incoming advocacy director of DC SAFE. The 24-hour crisis intervention agency puts survivors of domestic violence in contact with medical care, counseling, lawyers and housing.
Although domestic violence can happen to anyone, lower-income survivors may have fewer options when trying to leave. Victims attempt to leave their abuser a total of eight to ten times before leaving for good. Each time a survivor leaves, they are potentially facing homelessness – but that risk might be worth it to them, according to Hill.
It is impossible to see physical signs of financial abuse, which can look different in every situation. Family and friends should ask questions and look for the red flags if they suspect someone close to them is in an abusive relationship, Hill said.
Several sources of aid exist for survivors, like Bear, who have faced economic abuse. One source is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits. Others include shelters and transitional housing.
“Many domestic violence survivors turn to TANF as a temporary economic bridge when leaving abusive relationships,” testified Erin Larkin, policy attorney with the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
TANF provides funding and employment help to transition families from welfare to work. The program is supported with a mix of federal and local money. Approximately 17,000 families in the D.C. area receive TANF benefits, according to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute.
At an April 17 Committee on Health and Human Services Budget Oversight Hearing, stakeholders urged Chairwoman Yvette Alexander to support Mayor Bowser’s proposal to allocate a one-year extension for beneficiaries of TANF. Recipients typically have a time limit of 60 months, with nearly 6,000 families eligible for termination cut on October 1, 2015. The Department of Human Services (DHS) has no record of how many heads of household are survivors of domestic violence.
“DHS and Mayor Bowser have stated that it is important to extend these benefits for an additional year in order to learn more about these specific families and connect them with services that may help them increase their income,” testified Tomaso Johnson, also a policy attorney with the DC Coalition Against Domestic.
The proposed extension would also help further address a troubled TANF program that has not served families well, according to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. Problems such as inadequate access to employment services, dysfunctional computer systems, and a time limit that creates a dead end for parents even if they are working their best to find a job, have been identified by the think tank.
The Health and Human Services Committee works directly with the section of the budget that TANF falls under.
“My ultimate goal is for people to be self-sufficient and TANF is a temporary means for them to get on their feet,” Alexander said in support of the proposed extension. “I am looking for the Department of Human Services to have the ability to give residents all the resources needed to achieve financial independence.”
In the District, one domestic-violence related call was made every 16 minutes in 2013, according to Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) data. The DC Metropolitan Police Department was unable to provide statistics for the most recent year.
Nationally in 2013, a typical day saw 553 people placed in housing through local domestic violence service providers. However, an average of 52 requests for aid went unfulfilled each day, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
When the police get a call, DC SAFE is contacted to assess the situation and determine what to do in the next 24 hours. The organization coordinates with other agencies in the District to determine a course of action for the next 20-30 days, sometimes more.
Partner agencies include the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center and shelters like My Sister’s Place and House of Ruth – where Roberta Bear is currently receiving support.
My Sister’s Place, in addition to functioning as a shelter, operates a hotline for domestic violence victims. Hotline staff are available to speak with callers in many languages to put them in contact with the organizations they need.
Economic or financial abuse is often more common than physical abuse. Similar to Bear’s situation, an abuser can take or manipulate their partner’s income, forbid them to work, or steal and corrupt their identity, according to Judy Benitez, the deputy director of transitional housing for the National Network to End Domestic Violence. Victims may not feel financially stable enough to leave their abuser.
“Everywhere they turn, there are these seemingly difficult barriers which drive victims back to their abusers,” Benitez said.
Survivors are often left with a poor credit rating, no bills in their name, no references or no prior employment. These factors can influence a survivor’s ability to secure housing or a job, Benitez told Street Sense.
“It’s not necessarily that the family doesn’t have [money], she might not have access to it,” Benitez said. “People have the idea that domestic violence happens in lower socioeconomic classes, but that’s not necessarily the case.”
Power and control over a victim is the motivating force behind abuse. Controlling a victim’s finances is the ultimate power over their life.
“There’s no one rule in domestic violence –except that it’s the abuser’s fault and not her’s,” Benitez said.
Anyone experiencing domestic violence can call the DC SAFE hotline at (202) 879-8740 or the My Sister’s Place Hotline at (202) 529-5991.