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A Lease Issue Could Threaten Safe Housing For Victims Of Domestic Violence In D.C.

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

DC Survivors and Advocates for Empowerment (SAFE) operates the only 24-hour domestic violence crisis shelter in the District. Since becoming an independent organization in 2006, the group has worked to ensure the safety and self-determination for thousands of survivors of domestic violence in the nation’s capital.

However, thanks to an issue with the group’s lease, the future of some of the organization’s services is being thrown into question.

At the end of last month, the organization’s lease with Building Partnerships (BP) — an affordable housing development firm — expired. Although DC SAFE and BP did reach a deal under which the lease will be extended for another year, the group will lose two of its crisis shelter housing units in the process, bringing its available space from 20 to 18 units.

The organization’s SAFE Space crisis housing allows families at the highest risk of being injured or killed by an abuser to move into fully furnished apartments where they can recover for up to 20 days. Within the last year, DC SAFE helped 6,000 people in domestic violence situations, a quarter of whom were eligible to live in this crisis housing.

The crisis shelter is supposed to house someone within an hour of an emergency. That’s quite innovative.

“The crisis shelter is supposed to house someone within an hour of an emergency. That’s quite innovative,” Natalia Otero, DC SAFE’s founding executive director, told ThinkProgress. “We knew this was a temporary arrangement but didn’t bank on the difficulty of finding a permanent home. The challenge of this next fiscal year is mounting a campaign to actually purchase a building.”

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Women’s advocates point to housing as an immediate need of domestic abuse survivors. Without a safe place to stay, their long-term safety and stability is in jeopardy.

However, securing alternative housing often proves difficult for survivors because they may not have access to family finances. They may have also been prohibited from working or had their credit destroyed by an abusive partner. In some cases, that partner’s criminal history precludes them from getting public assistance. That’s why domestic violence is often designated as a significant factor in homelessness, with nearly half of the women who wind up without shelter pointing to conflicts with their partner as the key cause.

Supportive housing takes into account all of these factors while meeting the survivor’s unique safety needs.

[T]he only way to help them get out is providing this emergency assistance and holding the offender accountable.

“The majority of clients housed in our shelter are high risk,” Otero said. “They’re the segment of the population more likely to get assaulted again or even killed. In those cases, the only way to help them get out is providing this emergency assistance and holding the offender accountable.”

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Funding problems are common among domestic violence nonprofits, often to the detriment of the people they’re meant to help.

In 2013, more than a quarter of domestic violence program heads said cuts in government spending and staff reductions prevented them from providing support to survivors. That year, automatic budget cuts during sequestration took $20 million out of national funding. As lawmakers fought over ideological matters, Otero and her colleagues attempted to raise $19,000 within a week and mulled over the possibility of staffing cuts. Those funds would support shelter, emergency look changes at survivors’ homes, staff for the hotline and court advocates during the federal government shutdown.

Other organizations have had similar difficulties. In the previous year, nearly 80 percent of programs struggled to attract private funding sources. During that time, more than 45 percent of women said they stayed with their abuser longer than they had intended for economic reasons. Data from the National Network to End Domestic Violence showed that, in one day, programs across the country denied nearly 10,000 requests for assistance. Supportive housing accounted for more than 40 percent of program offerings in jeopardy.

We have the same problems all nonprofits have. Government and grant funding can be restrictive.

In its quest for the permanent space, DC SAFE’s options include competing with developers for market rate buildings, placing bids for government land, and partnering with another nonprofit or for-profit agency in the purchase of a building. DC SAFE and BP carried out the second option more than a year ago, submitting an application to D.C.’s Department of Housing and Community Development. Otero said little came out of that, perhaps because of transition in city leadership. Employing the other options often proves difficult for nonprofits, partly because of the relatively smaller budgets and banks’ skepticism that those organizations can repay loans.

While DC SAFE doesn’t plan on turning away survivors even in light of its unit shortage, Otero acknowledged that the alternative — a hotel stay paid for by the organization — isn’t usually the best solution. For the time being, however, she plans to focus on what she described as the successful efforts of DC SAFE’s partners to give survivors of domestic abuse a way out of a dangerous situation.

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DC SAFE did just that on Thursday evening during its annual gala and fundraiser that attracted more than 275 people. That night, Otero and her colleagues honored volunteers and organizations who have worked closely with domestic violence survivors.

“We have the same problems all nonprofits have. Government and grant funding can be restrictive,” Otero said. “Raising the amount of money a healthy nonprofit needs through donors is taxing and resource heavy. It’s not unusual for us. That’s why we have an organization have to be innovate and forward thinking in how we raise funds.”