City alters policies harming homeless domestic violence victims

Photo: Frank G. Runyeon
Margarita says the shelter system has done more injustice than her abuser.

City alters policies harming homeless domestic violence victims

January 19, 2016

New York City will change procedures for counting and evaluating homeless domestic violence victims as part of a 90-day review ordered by Mayor Bill de Blasio last month. The changes, which followed inquiries by New York Nonprofit Media, mark a departure from official practices that advocates have said were part of a system that often forces domestic violence victims to spend years cycling between city-run and specialized nonprofit-run shelters due to insufficient funding.

A city spokesperson outlined two principal changes.

First, the city will resume reporting the number of domestic violence victims in New York City shelters to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for their national report on homelessness after three years of electing not to do so. This will better inform policymakers of the importance of addressing domestic violence as a driver of homelessness, advocates have argued, and could boost funding for specialized housing, which is currently overwhelmed by requests from domestic violence victims.

Second, the city’s Department of Homeless Services will begin providing childcare during sensitive intake interviews, instead of requiring children to be present. Removing children from the interview room would prevent what advocates described as additional trauma caused by children hearing a parent recount specific details of domestic violence. 

Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks ordered the shifts in procedure as part of a top-down review of the city’s homeless services.

Victims of abuse and the nonprofits that serve them will welcome the procedure changes, but advocates say the issues the city is addressing point to deeper systemic problems that leave many domestic violence victims feeling trapped in a web of bureaucracy as they are passed from one shelter to the next.

One family’s odyssey through the shelter system

“The system forces a person in this situation to walk around in circles,” said Margarita, a 44-year-old homeless victim of domestic violence and mother of two. She currently lives among the general shelter population of 58,000 run by the Department of Homeless Services. 

Margarita fled her abusive husband in 2008, beginning an odyssey that has lasted nearly eight years. Moving from shelter to shelter, she has navigated a tangle of city agencies that have taken her family in before pushing them out again.

Although Margarita was allowed time in specialized domestic violence shelters – which provide critical services that enable victims to recover, including trauma counseling, safety planning, educational workshops and an unlisted address – once she exceeded the government-mandated time limit, she had to move out. She has ended up in the general shelter system without those services.

"We know there aren’t enough domestic violence shelters for the need. And we are also fairly sure that at least 30-or-so percent of people in the DHS system are victims of domestic violence,” said Judy Harris Kluger, executive director of Sanctuary for Families. 

Advocates point to past reports that show between 22 percent and 57 percent of all homeless women reported that domestic violence was the primary reason they are homeless. A 2006 Conference of Mayors report showed that 44 percent of the cities surveyed cited domestic violence as the primary cause of homelessness in their city. A report by the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness this past August found that during the 2013-2014 school year, approximately 28,000 school-age children were living in New York City shelters.

Advocates say those numbers suggest that 20,000 individuals – a third of the general shelter population plus the victims in specialized domestic violence shelters – are homeless as a direct result of domestic violence. HRA reported that on Dec. 9, 2015, the mostly nonprofit-run domestic violence shelters catered to 933 families with children and 90 single adults, totaling 2,652 individuals.

The city’s estimate of the “DV” population is considerably lower. The Department of Homeless Services reported just 2,582 families, or 22 percent of all families in its shelters – typically mothers with children – said domestic violence was their primary reason for homelessness.

Government funders impose limits on how long a “DV” victim can stay at specialized domestic violence shelters. Advocates have stretched that limit to 180 days. But the scarcity of affordable housing in the city, they said, means that even that six-month window is not enough time to get a family back on their feet and into a new home. When time is up, DV providers struggle to find a safe place for them.

“If they have no place to go (they) can end up going back to their abuser,” Kluger said, “or another unsafe housing situation with their children, and put themselves at further risk.”

DV advocates credit Mayor de Blasio for his efforts to assist homeless domestic violence victims, especially voucher programs like CITYFEPS and LINC, which provide rental subsidies for victims moving out of shelters and into their own apartments. The problem is that many landlords are skeptical of the vouchers. An earlier rent subsidy program, “Advantage,” was abruptly ended in January 2012 by the Bloomberg administration, leaving landlords in the lurch.

“The landlords are having a hard time accepting the vouchers,” said Cecilia Gastón, executive director of the nonprofit Violence Intervention Program. “They have been burned before.”

Margarita with her two children, ages 10 and 12. (Photo: Frank G. Runyeon) 

“Where do I go now?”

Margarita would know. She moved out of shelter and into an apartment with an Advantage voucher in 2010. While the situation was far from ideal – after signing the lease, she discovered the building superintendent was a registered child sex offender – Margarita lost her home again when the program ended. She fell back into a domestic violence shelter run by the nonprofit Violence Intervention Program, but when her time there expired, she wound up in a DHS shelter.

Now, she has qualified for a new rental voucher, but she’s skeptical.

“It doesn't matter if you have a piece of paper that says you can rent an apartment, because the adventure comes after you get the paper,” Margarita explained. “Where do I go now? Not everyone accepts these vouchers.”

For now, she’s been working to find a landlord that would accept her – without much luck. So, since last year, she has been living in a DHS shelter in Brooklyn. The choice was a last resort, but she is not alone among domestic violence victims moving in with the general homeless population.

The path from domestic violence shelter to DHS shelter has become a well-worn trail for many women and children looking for housing after their time in DV shelter – so much so that the city decided in late 2014 to put a freeze on the 180-day limit DV victims have to find new housing. This allows them to stay in DV housing and hopefully buy more time for shelter residents to find permanent housing under the new voucher programs.

While the freeze helps, advocates say, it has failed to keep victims out of DHS shelters.

“More people are fleeing domestic violence and entering shelter every day,” said Michael Polenberg, vice president of government affairs at the nonprofit Safe Horizon, the city’s largest domestic violence shelter provider. “Sometimes we're able to place them and sometimes we aren't, because there isn't capacity or because they need shelter in a particular borough. So, those folks are going to DHS."

Families entering the DHS system who claim domestic abuse have been required to provide an in-depth account of their abuse so the city can determine whether or not the family qualifies as domestic violence victims under the city’s technical definition. The NoVA unit, which stands for “No Violence Again,” interviews the victim – often a mother – in the presence her children. Although the city has now pledged to begin providing childcare during these sensitive intake interviews, the way social workers currently conduct this grim interview can be psychologically damaging, advocates say. 

“The women we have worked with have said the most traumatic part of going through the process of going into shelter in New York is that, ‘We have to be vetted by the NoVA unit,’” said Paul Feuerstein, president and CEO of the nonprofit Barrier Free Living, which provides housing to victims of domestic violence with disabilities.

“Many times it is the first time the children have heard the gory details of the domestic violence that their mother has been through. And it has been a traumatizing experience for the children involved,” Feuerstein explains. “There is literally no place for children to go while that is happening.” 

Although 22 percent of all families in the DHS shelter system said they were homeless because of domestic violence, after evaluating those families, NoVA social workers determined that just six percent of all families were eligible for NoVA benefits, which, advocates said, only amounts to housing in a women-and-children-only shelter, without the services crucial to victims’ recovery.

Margarita holds the keys to her shelter residence. (Photo: Frank G. Runyeon)

“They asked me everything”

Margarita submitted to the NoVA interview along with her then four-year-old daughter and three-year-old son.

There were two desks in the crowded room, she said – one for her interview and another for a different mother with her children. Her NoVA social worker dispassionately filled out paperwork and began asking her questions, with her children seated next to her.

"They asked me everything,” Margarita recalled. “Details…and everything.”

Margarita sent her children to the corner to play with toys. She hoped they wouldn’t hear her describing the physical, psychological and sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of their father.

“I talked soft, s-o-f-t-l-y,” she said stretching the words for effect. "I didn't want them to be hearing what happened.”

But they did.

Her son never mentioned it until much later and her daughter only remembers a little from that day, Margarita said. But her daughter had already been a victim. Her father abused her as well.

The NoVA unit deemed her family eligible for placement in a DHS NoVA shelter, housing a mix of DV victims and other women and children.

HRA spokesman David Neustadt told New York Nonprofit Media that Commissioner Steven Banks has “instructed DHS to create a space for childcare with appropriate staff so that domestic violence interviews can be conducted without the children being present.” 

The city did not specify a timeline for when the childcare system would be in place, but Neustadt added that “the new system will be in operation as soon as DHS is able to build that space and hire staff.” 

Most days, Margarita said, the struggle is less dramatic than the NoVA interview, involving mountains of paperwork and benefits applications on top of the day-to-day grind of taking her children to and from school while working as a cleaning lady. But the seemingly mundane indignities of the system pile up over time.

“I don’t know who’s going to explode first,” Margarita said of her family. “Me or them.”

“My children are tired, they’re frustrated,” Margarita said, noting that they currently spend three hours commuting to and from school every day. But the primary problem, she said, is that her inquisitive young children don’t understand why they must keep moving – they have moved six times since 2008.

“It’s better if you give us to someone else”

One day, Margarita said, her now 12-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son sat her down for a family meeting. “We have something to say to you," they said. Smiling wistfully, Margarita remembers them telling her, ”We’re not going to keep moving to some other place. We'll take the money that we have and pay for a house.’” 

Her children wanted a place for toys, but the shelter had no space. They wanted to do homework, but they didn’t have the Internet they needed. And when they were hungry, they wanted more than what the food stamps could pay for. 

So, her children offered an alternative, Margarita remembered. If we can’t move into a real home, her children told her, "It's better if you give us to someone else.”

Margarita’s children are American, but she is not. Because her children go with her to so many meetings, they’ve begun to understand that her undocumented status has added to the difficulty in getting benefits.

However, advocates say, her experience with the homeless system is not unique.

Amy Barasch, who headed New York’s Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence before taking her current post as executive director of the nonprofit Her Justice, explained that the homeless system in New York has often failed to meet the needs of women who are homeless as a result of domestic violence.

"These are individuals who have been brutalized by their partners, probably have children, are extremely vulnerable and are absolutely going to suffer more if they don't have housing,” Barasch said. “The trauma is exacerbated by the homelessness.”

Margarita agrees.

“Truly, of all that I've been through, all the injustice that has happened,” Margarita said. “It has mostly been the injustice of the system.”

She looked around the room of the shelter. 

Then added quietly, "And here I am.”


Ana Mendez contributed reporting to this piece.


Frank Runyeon
Frank G. Runyeon
is City & State’s senior reporter. He covers state politics and investigations.