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How The Social Services System Pushes Domestic Violence Survivors Toward Homelessness
Domestic violence is the leading cause of women becoming unhoused. But it's rarely included in homelessness policy.
thumbnail_abuse patching FINAL.jpg
(Illustration by Alborz Kamalizad)
(Illustration by Alborz Kamalizad)
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  • 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.

    When Susan Kolkowicz went to a clinic one day for a routine check up, the secret she’d been keeping for years was finally discovered. Extensive bruises on her body showed the abuse she’d been enduring from her partner.

    She was referred to a domestic violence counselor, but when she was offered a bed at a shelter for survivors, she couldn’t accept. She would have to give up her phone, couldn’t take anything with her, and had to go to Long Beach — far away from her West L.A. neighborhood, and the modest amount of social services she had just started receiving.

    “They want you to go to stay in a shelter out of the area where your perpetrator would go if he was trying to find you,” Kolkowicz said.

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    “It felt very punishing. Because of this situation, I was gonna be pulled away from everything that was familiar to me.”

    “It felt very punishing. Because of this situation, I was gonna be pulled away from everything that was familiar to me.”
    — Susan Kolkowicz, survivor and advocate
    How The Social Services System Pushes Domestic Violence Survivors Toward Homelessness

    It’s this approach to helping survivors that often drives them away. The intention is to keep them physically safe by removing them from their lives entirely — essentially plucking them out of their own existence. It’s a strategy often at odds with the real-life needs of survivors.

    A Neglected Population

    In general, services for unsheltered women are lacking, somewhat under the false assumption that “unaccompanied women” don’t become unhoused. For decades, the specific needs of women were left out of policymaking decisions on surrounding homelessness.

    There weren’t even women’s shelters until the 1970’s, an irony as many of the first homeless shelters in the country were created by churches. They were opened in response to parishioners in need, many of whom were women fleeing abuse in their homes.

    While homeless programs have now grown into a patchwork of different groups, strategic initiatives for survivors forced into homelessness have been largely absent. Elizabeth Eastlund, director of Rainbow Services, recalls reading through hundreds of pages of L.A. County recommendations and finding sparse mention of domestic violence.

    “One of the homeless initiatives, at the very end literally said ‘and consider the needs of survivors.’”
    — Elizabeth Eastlund, Rainbow Services

    “One of the homeless initiatives, at the very end literally said ‘and consider the needs of survivors,’” said Eastlund, whose organization provides shelter and support for people impacted by domestic violence.

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    Eastlund has long worked with unhoused survivors. And in the last decade, data has been published revealing what she’d known all along: that domestic violence is the leading reason women become unhoused. But homelessness and domestic violence services have historically been siloed from one another.

    “It's still pretty challenging when I hear policymakers who feel that domestic violence has its own money, so why do we need housing funding?” Eastlund said.


    Put Through the Wringer

    Survivors describe having to make significant sacrifices to receive assistance — experiences that they report exacerbated the trauma they were suffering from having survived abuse and become unhoused.

    Each nonprofit or government agency has its own set of rules and requirements for survivors to get help. Usually, the harshest rules are in place to make the best of an overtaxed system and create a way to select who gets assistance.

    But for those who have to actually meet the checklists, it means navigating a bureaucratic nightmare. And the price they’re asked to pay can leave lasting emotional damage.

    Not Homeless For Long Enough

    After Susan Kolkowicz refused the offer of a shelter in Long Beach, she went back to her abuser. But when he went to prison for what he’d done to her, she was alone. With nowhere to go, she eventually sought shelter in outdoor encampments. After eight months living outside, she finally was offered a two-week stay in an emergency women’s shelter.

    Under the rules, to move into a transitional shelter, where she could stay for longer, she had to show she’d been unhoused for a year. Because she’d only been unhoused for eight months, she was turned down — and had to go back to the encampment.

    “It was so horrible to have to face this endless night again.”
    — Susan Kolkowicz

    “To have got a reprieve from the awfulness and then having to go back into it, it almost made me wish I hadn’t even had the reprieve,” Kolkowicz said. “It was so horrible to have to face this endless night again.”

    Susan Kolkowicz describes her former encampment under an overpass in West LA
    (Photo by Julia Paskin)

    How Domestic Violence Pushed One Woman Into Homelessness

    So Kolkowicz went back to living under an overpass on Pico and Sawtelle, not far from where she used to rent. After a full year, she was accepted into a transitional shelter, and then supportive housing. She’s now in her own place, and works with unhoused women in Skid Row.

    Kolkowicz also advocates for survivors, holding seats on boards and testifying before legislators.

    “I don’t want someone who's suffering from domestic violence to ever have to spend a year outside,” she says. “That just doubled the trauma and there was no need for that.”

    Leave Your Children

    For survivors with family, getting access to an emergency or transitional shelter can mean being asked to be apart from their children.

    Teniecka Drake couldn't find housing after escaping an abusive relationship. She is a veteran so she went through the Veterans Administration, but the shelter she was offered — which she had to accept in order to get housing assistance in the future — said she could only take two of her children with her.

    “I have four, so I had to sacrifice — keeping my two kids that have special needs with my family, while I enrolled by myself into this program.”

    She stayed there for five months before qualifying for housing assistance, allowing her family to be reunited.

    Patching The Cracks

    In 2016, Elizabeth Eastlund teamed up with Amy Turk of the Downtown Women’s Center to establish L.A.’s first coalition of homeless and domestic violence services, aimed at bringing providers together. In doing so, they hoped to address the problems survivors experience with shelters, and throughout the system.

    Their campaign for more humane policies is driven by what’s called “Trauma Informed Care.

    “It's really coming from a perspective of thinking, not what's wrong with you but what happened to you.”
    — Amy Turk, Downtown Women's Center

    “It's really coming from a perspective of thinking, not what's wrong with you but what happened to you,” Turk said.

    How We Reported This Series

    “When you shift your thinking in that way, then suddenly you're less apt to blame an individual for their circumstance and more apt to just kind of understand where they're coming from.”

    Some of the issues Turk and Eastlund are working to change:

    • More Autonomy

    While intended to keep residents safe, rules at shelters can be emotionally triggering to survivors of trauma. They say it’s neither healthy nor realistic to ask survivors of controlling, abusive relationships to comply with rules that restrict their movement, cease communications with others, and force them to quit their jobs.

    So they’re offering other ideas. For example, instead of seizing a survivor’s phone, they encourage shelters to teach residents how to turn off the phone's GPS locator so they can’t be tracked by an abuser.

    • Streamline the System

    Another challenge for survivors is navigating the many groups offering separate services.

    Some shelters, for instance, will only admit women who have experienced violence in the last 30 days, while other organizations can only help with a security deposit.

    Piecing together the patchwork of groups and agencies means survivors have to enter an exhausting maze of different providers. Drake says that’s hard to do when recovering from trauma.

    “It's a very broken system. The only way that you get anything done is you have to make it happen.”
    — Teniecka Drake, survivor and advocate

    “It's a very broken system. The only way that you get anything done is you have to make it happen,” Drake said. She’s grateful that any of these organizations exist, “but in order to have the linkage, you, the person going through the challenge, you have to connect the dots. They don't connect the dots for you.”

    • Stopping The Financial Domino Effect

    Another approach is emerging that may prevent some survivors from having to enter such an overwhelming system in the first place.

    Historically, domestic violence groups focused on removing a survivor from the home. Sometimes that is necessary for their safety, but advocates say providers shouldn’t assume they always know the best way to help survivors.

    Instead of forcing unhoused abuse survivors into shelters, Eve Sheedy from the LA County Domestic Violence Council says one-time grants are proven to stop the financial domino effect that leads to homelessness.

    “Whether it be for that first and last month's rent, being able to repair your car,” Sheedy said. “Things that people may not connect to what the needs are coming out of an abusive relationship.”

    In addition to empowering survivors, flexible emergency grants of just a couple thousand dollars are more cost-effective than stepping in after years of being unhoused.

    “With not a huge amount of money, oftentimes being able to cover these really immediate expenses in a timely manner will really keep someone moving forward,” Sheedy said.

    If an emergency grant and coordinated services had been available to Drake at the right time, it may have prevented her from having to endure five months without two of her children.

    Through their coalition, Turk and Eastland convene different kinds of providers that come into contact with survivors experiencing homelessness. Their strategy is to include voices such as Kolkowicz and Drake to influence providers to create policies that meet the practical needs of survivors.

    They also hope to garner support for more resources. For example, in lieu of more funding specifically earmarked for intimate partner violence, providers of services for unhoused people could identify survivors and connect them with critical services.

    The hope is by streamlining the system and bringing in more funding, in the future survivors won’t have to become unhoused when seeking safety from their abusers.