The numbers are hard to believe, hidden in plain sight.
The majority of unhoused women across the nation — 57% according to recent data — say domestic violence is the direct cause of losing their permanent home. In L.A, almost 40% of women who are homeless say they’ve experienced abuse in the last 12 months.
The choice they’ve been forced to make: Stay in danger with their abusers — or escape, with nowhere to go.
We’re talking to survivors, homeless service providers, and experts to explore the little-known connection between domestic violence and homelessness. To do so, we’ve:
- Reported on the lived experiences of Southern California women surviving abuse and homelessness
- Examined where the social safety net has failed them
- Talked to advocates who are finding ways to keep survivors out of homelessness in the first place.
“It’s like jumping from a burning building but there’s no net to catch you,” said Nikki Brown, a survivor and advocate.
There are many, complex reasons why survivors become homeless. Shame is one of them. Yet studies show that one in three women experience some form of intimate partner abuse in their lives. So why don’t we talk about it more?
"It's the greatest secret that's super common and nobody wants to admit it."
“It's the greatest secret that's super common and nobody wants to admit it,” said Brown. “There are so many complicated circumstances that make it really hard to leave. And when you can't leave, that element of shame and blame is the thing that makes it so hard to talk about.”
Women who try to talk about their experience of intimate partner abuse with friends and family often get discouraging responses.
Brown recounts pointed questions like, “You’re smart, you’re not weak, so why didn't you just leave?”
“Domestic violence is one of the few crimes, if not the only crime, where the victim gets asked, ‘Why didn't you leave?’” said Maricela Rios-Faust, CEO of the Orange County domestic violence organization Human Options. “We don't typically ask that of victims of other crimes.”
The effect is that victims suffer in silence, endure abuse for longer periods of time, and have less support when they finally decide to flee an abuser.
A common scenario is that a victim is actively isolated from friends, family, and colleagues — pretty much anyone they would normally go to for advice or support. That’s because the abuser’s goal is to make the victim feel alone and dependent on them.
"They may have strong social networks, and little by little, [the abusers] are cutting them off."
“They may have strong social networks, and little by little, [the abusers] are cutting them off, saying, ‘I don't want you visiting your friends that often, your brother doesn't really like me and so I don’t want to go over to visit him,’” said Rios-Faust. “All of those things begin to erode those social connections, and when you feel completely isolated and dependent on someone, it's really difficult to disentangle yourself from that.”
The result: When a survivor leaves an abuser, she doesn't have practical support like a place to stay or help with childcare. And she's doing it without emotional support from friends and family.
The specifics of abuse can be different in every relationship, but the common thread is that victims are made to fear their abusers. Physical violence. Emotional violence. Constant surveillance. The threat of disclosing immigration status. Or of taking the children away. However that control manifests itself, the abuser is able to hold something over the victim’s head.
Rios-Faust describes a client who had to wait six months before leaving, because her abuser was watching her through cameras he’d set up around their home.
“It was under the threat of, ‘If I see that you're trying to leave, I'll take the children away,’” she said. “So anytime the abuser left, he took the kids with them, and he would not allow her to have the kids on her own.”
'If I see that you're trying to leave, I'll take the children away.'
If the abuser senses they might be losing that control, they often escalate abuse so the victim is frightened out of leaving. But if she is determined to escape and begins to plan, statistically, that’s the most dangerous time for a victim, because the abuser is confronted with the reality of losing them. And it’s the most likely time for a victim to be killed by their abuser.
But it’s not only about emotional and physical abuse. Intimate partner violence almost always comes with financial abuse. That’s when an abuser restricts a victim’s ability to work, or controls their access to money and credit. By controlling their resources, even when they’re the sole income earner, an abuser can both monitor and limit a victim’s activity. So many, before they leave, have to come to terms with the fact that they will lose all their money, access to credit, and their home.
Leaving With Nothing
Oftentime, escaping an abuser means running, sometimes literally for one's life, at the first chance and leaving everything behind.
“Imagine walking out of wherever you're at right now and having to go find a new place."
Elizabeth Eastlund is executive director of the L.A.-based domestic violence organization Rainbow Services. She said survivors and their children will often arrive at the group's emergency shelter with only the clothes on their backs.
“Imagine walking out of wherever you're at right now and having to go find a new place," she said.
That’s what Nikki Brown had to do to escape 10 years of intimate partner abuse. “I concocted [an escape plan] to go camping with my friends and not come home," she said, "so at least I got to pack my car. I got my dog. I got my checks, I got my passport, I got some clothes.”
But Brown had to leave everything else behind, including all her belongings and her apartment lease.
“It's hard to realize you need to leave and then we need to leave, you have to smash your life to go,” said Brown. “I smashed my own life. Dropped it all.”
Nowhere To Go
Survivors talk about the disorienting experience of having nowhere to sleep for the first time.
“I really don't know how to describe it,” survivor and advocate Susan Kolkowicz said, “because our entire life we've had somewhere to go at night. You don't even think about it. And when you don't have a home to go to, what do you do?”
Kolkowicz initially spent her nights riding the bus across the city until dawn, trying to grab some sleep sitting up in her seat. Moving into a homeless camp felt like an improvement because she could finally lie down. She spent the better part of a year in two different homeless camps before finally getting accepted to a shelter, and then transitional housing.
For many survivors, the first resource they turn to is 211, California’s one-stop-shop for community resources. But the phone line isn’t always as helpful as intended.
Survivor Kymberly McClain said when she called 211 looking for shelter services, she received 10 contacts— only to be turned down by every organization she called.
“If you call 211, there is no connection between the resources that they’re giving out and if those resources are up to date, if those resources are for your specific need, if those resources are available,” she said.
"You have to flee first and then contact shelters and say 'hi, I’m homeless and I need shelter now'. And that may or may not be available to you at any given time."
To make it even more complicated, even if you were aware of all the available shelter beds out there, you still couldn’t plan ahead to move into one. That’s because you’re still housed —and you first have to be homeless to be accepted into a shelter.
"You have to flee first and then contact shelters and say 'hi, I’m homeless and I need shelter now'. And that may or may not be available to you at any given time," said Brown.
And those applying for a spot in transitional homeless shelters have to be unhoused for a whole year to qualify.
Shelters will also prioritize those most in need. Some organizations will only take survivors who have been physically harmed in the last 30 days, even if violence is the reason for becoming unhoused.
And even if survivors do meet all these requirements, space is limited. In L.A. County, there are only about 1,000 beds at emergency and transitional shelters for survivors. And that’s just not enough to meet the demand.
Shelters often have rules to protect residents, designed to ensure they can’t be tracked by their abusers.
“A lot of shelters will require that you don't continue working,” said Eastlund. “They'll take your cell phone, they have curfews in place.”
But those kinds of rules can be unrealistic and difficult to live under, so some survivors will turn down a place in the shelter. Or if they do move in, the controlling dynamic can be an emotional trigger, and unwittingly cause them to relive their trauma.
There is a movement to reform these rules. Some providers are pushing for what’s called “trauma-informed care,” which means in part making space for personal agency while a survivor is recovering from a controlling abuser.
Left Out Of Policy
Women as a group aren’t a focus of homelessness funding. Policymakers typically think of women as part of other categories of the unhoused, such as veterans, the chronically homeless, families, and youth, said Downtown Women’s Center Director Amy Turk.
“But we've seen that women can really fall out of those categories," she said. "Some women are not considered chronically homeless, meaning they haven't literally been homeless long enough."
And the further a woman is marginalized, the less services are available. For example, there’s just one shelter dedicated to unhoused transgender women in L.A. County. It opened in 2019, and only has space for 16 residents.
Navigating The Maze
Getting into a shelter is only part of the battle. Moving out is another. Reentering L.A.’s housing market is a daunting task, so survivors often have to rely on supportive services to build a new, permanent home. Because survivors sometimes leave everything behind when they flee, they need things like:
- Security deposit
- Rental assistance
- Job counseling
Assistance is available but can come from different providers, requiring research skills and persistence to piece it all together.
While social service agencies are staffed with many good-hearted individuals doing invaluable work, it’s commonly acknowledged by providers and survivors that the system is a mess. Critics say it can make the plot of a Kafka story seem humane and well organized in comparison. To put it another way: If you’ve ever felt the frustration and helplessness of arguing with an insurance company to approve urgently needed healthcare, it’s like that — but instead of one agency, you’re dealing with dozens.
Survivors are some of the most resilient people on earth. Some do make it through and find stable housing, but not all. Despite their best efforts and personal strength, many are still unhoused, living in encampments, in their cars, couch surfing, or bouncing between shelters.
The experiences of survivors are beginning to be better understood, and social policy may well be changing. Meanwhile, there are more than 20,600 women unhoused in L.A. — many still needing services specifically for survivors of intimate partner violence.