What if when you called the fire department, you were asked “What do you mean by ‘fire?’” What if homeowners had one definition, public schools had another and the police department had yet another one? It would be confusing and inefficient to respond if everybody understood the term “fire” differently, especially when timing is critical.
In the public discussion on homelessness, and the need to respond, survivors of domestic violence are often overlooked as a significant part of the homeless population. This causes an overarching dilemma when developing a strategy for solving homelessness here in northern Michigan. The harsh reality is that domestic violence doesn’t discriminate based on geographic location, socioeconomic status, gender, race or circumstance. It is a silent public heath crisis that impacts our society, were survivors being forced to make a choice: stay in danger with their abuser — or escape, with limited resources to support them.
The numbers are hard to believe — hidden in plain sight making the homelessness of a domestic violence survivor invisible in our community. The majority of unhoused women across the nation — 80 percent according to recent data — say domestic violence is the direct cause of losing their permanent home. In Grand Traverse County, more than 17 percent of women who are homeless say they’ve experienced abuse in the last 12 months.
Our system was never built to handle the unique needs of survivors. The current application process to obtaining affordable housing is lengthy, cumbersome and inefficient, creating an unnecessary barrier between survivors and lifesaving resources. As a community, we are learning that reversing the upward curve of homelessness, providing more accessible pathways toward permanent housing and ultimately self-sufficiency require innovative, interlocking strategies.
It’s time to update our definitions of homelessness to be more inclusive of domestic violence survivors. Work still must be done to improve safety nets to catch survivors when they stumble and to support programs that have a proven track record of safely helping survivors out of crisis. Refining and improving our homeless response system, addressing the underlying pathologies of homelessness and improving affordable housing are key to reducing homelessness in our community and meeting the needs of survivors.
I have the honor to be a part of an organization that continues to work hand in hand with many local partners to try and solve the homelessness dilemma and make the pathway to housing a fair and more transparent process for our community’s most vulnerable residents. Homelessness isn’t a single problem with a single solution but we must ensure that we work together in creating options that are inclusive of survivors.
Homelessness is an overwhelming challenge in our community and domestic violence continues to be the third leading cause of it.
As we move into an era where we focus on diversity and inclusion in our region, it is important to carry over these thought processes into the conversations we are having on homelessness and housing to ensure that our definitions are inclusive of all.
About the author: Heather Patterson is the grant administrator at the Women’s Resource Center and an advocate for survivors of domestic violence who are housing vulnerable.