Is the Help Helpful? Alternatives to Shelter for Families Headed by Domestic Violence Survivors

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Is the Help Helpful?  Alternatives to Shelter for Families Headed by Domestic Violence Survivors

Carol Corden, Executive Director of New Destiny Housing. This piece was submitted on behalf of the Family Homelessness Task Force (FHTF), formed by Citizens’ Committee for Children, Enterprise Community Partners and New Destiny Housing to call attention to the well-being of children growing up in a shelter system not designed for that purpose.  FHTF’s goal is to call attention to the needs of homeless children and their families and to develop and advance recommendations to prevent and end family homelessness.

Domestic violence is a major driver of family homelessness in New York City.  The City’s primary answer to the problem for well over 30 years has been to provide short-term shelter for low-income survivors and their children.  While shelter responds to the immediate crisis of keeping victims safe, it does not address the long-term, post-crisis challenge of keeping survivors and their children violence-free and housing-stable.  

Philanthropy could help reduce family homelessness and help domestic violence survivors and their children find long-term stability and safety by piloting and scaling up evidence informed alternatives to short-term shelter such as safety in place, rapid rehousing, and service-enriched housing.  Such survivor- driven models that offer victims flexible funding to remain safely in their existing housing or find new housing along with wrap-around services calibrated to their needs, create space for survivors to focus on healing and equipping themselves to live independently.  

Safety in Place

New York City’s HRA operates an in place program called Alternatives To Shelter (ATS) to keep victims of domestic violence in their existing housing when it can be done safely. However, the program’s requirement that survivors obtain an Order of Protection and be able to afford their housing without assistance means that very few survivors can access it.  ATS could be re-tooled and scaled up to serve more domestic violence survivors. For instance, a safety assessment by domestic violence experts instead of an Order of Protection and the availability of rental assistance could expand the use of this program significantly with better outcomes for adults and children who would experience less disruption to their lives.  With these tweaks, more survivors might be able to access ATS. 

Rapid Rehousing

For the many survivors who cannot remain safely in their existing housing, relocation to new permanent housing is an option.  HousingLink, a program developed by New Destiny Housing in collaboration with the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence and co-located at the City’s five borough-based Family Justice Centers, adapts elements of the rapid rehousing model to New York City’s high-cost housing market. It connects eligible households headed by domestic violence survivors to available units in affordable housing projects managed by for-profit and nonprofit affordable housing providers. Short-term financial assistance makes the move to permanent housing possible and aftercare services for those placed in housing help families to remain housing stable. Notably, the amounts involved, both for direct assistance and program staffing, are minimal compared to the average annual $62,000 per family cost to shelter, plus the untallied human costs.

Service Enriched Housing

When survivor-led families are placed in permanent housing they should have access to supportive services to help them maintain themselves and rebuild their lives.  Service-enriched permanent housing is a nationally recognized approach that incorporates light-touch services into housing, usually through a full-time or part-time Tenant Services Coordinator who acts as a resource, coach, and referral source for tenants. When this model is adapted for vulnerable families headed by domestic violence survivors, it may require additional staffing – e.g., a case manager to help with benefits and safety planning and a case manager to work with children—depending upon the number of families and children to be housed.  The key traits of this model are that services are voluntary and flexible, family-focused, and trauma-informed.

Preventing families fleeing domestic violence from becoming homeless is both less costly than shelter and far less traumatic.  And for those who must use short-term shelter, helping them to find appropriate permanent housing quickly upon leaving shelter is critical to ending the cycle of violence and poverty.  Otherwise, despite the significant public investment made in shelter, most domestic violence shelter users will find themselves still homeless and at risk of abuse when their stay in the shelter system ends. Options exist and adequate funding could bring them to scale.

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