A woman can have the courage to want to leave a home in which she was assaulted, but what is the point if she has nowhere to go? Sometimes the biggest hurdle that prevents victims from escaping their abusive situation has less to do with the fear of leaving than the fear of having no other place to live. There is one way for Maine to address the issue, though: Domestic violence survivors should be given preference for subsidized housing.
In 2012, 903 people — 464 adults and 437 children — relied on emergency shelter beds maintained by the Maine Center to End Domestic Violence. But throughout the year, the agency was unable to meet 1,056 requests for shelter because of a shortage of beds. It is unacceptable, especially in a time of such technological and scientific knowledge, that this country and state have not yet figured out how to ensure that adults and children running away from abuse can find a safe place to sleep.
The answer isn’t necessarily to have more emergency shelters but, rather, more access to housing. In many cases, once people get to the shelters, they find they have nowhere else to go; there is not enough available, affordable housing. So they remain in the emergency centers longer, preventing others from being able to use them, said MCEDV Executive Director Julia Colpitts. Or they and their children, who may have little financial means of their own, return to abuse.
“Economic issues, particularly housing, are what a lot of survivors say are what pushes them back into unsafe relationships,” Colpitts said.
Domestic violence isn’t going away soon; the problem is becoming more visible. The number of victim contacts with domestic violence advocates at MCEDV increased by 6,190 between 2010 and 2012 — to 132,105 from 125,916, Colpitts said. The number of domestic violence offenses reported to police has remained relatively steady in the last decade, according to Uniform Crime Reporting data. Logically, if outcomes aren’t really improving, the state should modify its approach.
Luckily, the Maine State Housing Authority is already working on a way to help domestic violence survivors get housing and, therefore, a means of escape. Since last October, the quasi-governmental agency has been developing changes to its housing choice voucher administrative plan. While it currently moves those who are living in shelters or are homeless to the top of its waiting list for Section 8 vouchers — which help pay for housing and are based on income — it does not have a preference for domestic violence victims. The wait time for a Section 8 voucher depends on funding and individual circumstances, but the average is two to three years. For the homeless, it’s two to six months.
MaineHousing already gives preference to specific groups of people, such as the elderly, people with disabilities and families; and the rule change would align with federal guidelines. MaineHousing is accepting public comments on the proposal until March 19, when the board of commissioners may take a vote. If the plan is put in place, a person applying for housing could claim the domestic violence preference — which would need to be verified — and any others that apply, such as being homeless. Having more than one preference point would increase the likelihood of being moved to the top of the waiting list. The hope, too, is that the rule change could reduce homelessness and General Assistance expenses — as victims often turn to the local aid.
When people hurt those they are supposed to love, the problem extends beyond the home, to the community. Domestic violence is a cultural problem that originates, often, from a segment of society that devalues women. It is a complex problem, with roots in individuals’ histories. It’s an economic matter. At times it is exacerbated by drugs or alcohol. It’s also a matter of civil rights. So any response to the state’s immense problem of domestic violence will involve much more than giving survivors preference for subsidized housing. But it would be a very good step.