Domestic Violence, Housing, and a Human Rights Win for U.S. Women

UNITED STATES – JULY 30: Darkness falls over the Capitol  Saturday evening, July 30, 2011, as Senate leaders on both sides st
UNITED STATES – JULY 30: Darkness falls over the Capitol Saturday evening, July 30, 2011, as Senate leaders on both sides struggle to come to an agreement on the debt ceiling. (Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call)

March 8 is International Women's Day, and it's especially timely for us in the U.S. this year. The recent enactment of legislation reauthorizing and strengthening the Violence Against Women Act is a landmark event for women, and especially low-income women, in the U.S. The new law adds greater protections and resources for survivors of domestic violence and assault. It also brings our country closer to the goal of ensuring the human right to housing.

What does domestic violence have to do with the human right to housing? Lots. Part of the new law protects and greatly expands the housing rights of domestic violence survivors, with the goal of preventing a choice between staying with their abuser and having a place to live. This either/or is all too common now: in fact, domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness for women. While anyone can be victimized by domestic violence, women as well as teens are much more likely to be than adult males. And of those fleeing their homes due to violence, those without resources are more likely to end up homeless.

Prevention is always the goal in addressing homelessness -- once a person becomes homeless, not only does she suffer the pain, harm and danger of being without housing, but it is also much harder to attain self-sufficiency. Without a home, everything else become much more difficult or even impossible: searching for and maintaining employment; keeping up medication regimes; obtaining public benefits; obtaining and keeping identification documents; and obtaining housing; to name just a few. Emergency resources such as shelter are woefully inadequate across the country, and living in public brings not just risks to health and even life, but also to safety, especially for women, who are at risk of being raped or sexually assaulted.

Preventing this cascading harm must be a major goal of any effort to address homelessness, and the new VAWA law does just that. The 2005 version of the VAWA law included for the first time provisions that protect survivors from being evicted from federal public and subsidized housing based on the actions of their abusers. The 2013 legislation builds on and greatly expands those protections, by extending them to all housing programs administered by the U.S. department of Housing and Urban development, and to housing funded by the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, and to rural housing supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That's over 3 million additional housing units now covered.

It's a big step in the right direction--and it moves us toward protecting the human right to housing. Late last year, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights issued a report on Women and the Right to Adequate Housing, a comprehensive look at the housing rights of women set out in human rights instruments and treaties -- and their implementation, or violation, in countries around the world. The report includes a description of violations of that right in North America, drawing on testimony by poor and homeless women, including women in the United States, who told their stories to the top UN housing official during his consultation on women and housing rights, co-organized by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP), in Washington, D.C. in 2005.

In one of the examples presented to the UN officials
, "Ronda" in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, obtained federal housing assistance in the form of a Housing Choice Voucher that helped her pay rent. She lived with her four children and her boyfriend. Her boyfriend assaulted her in July 2001, and she ended her relationship with him. He moved out, and she removed him from her lease. Ten days after the assault, she received notice from the local housing agency that her voucher assistance was being terminated because of her boyfriend's violent criminal activity against her. With the loss of the voucher assistance, Ronda was suddenly unable to pay her rent.

Among the grievous harms described by some of the women -- and confirmed by countless others -- was the prospect of having their children taken away and put into foster care if they were to lose their housing. This fear, among others, kept them from fleeing abuse. Years later, in 2011, a visit by another UN official, an expert in domestic violence, was an occasion for NLCHP and other organizations to give testimony, outlining recommendations for changes to VAWA; many were adopted by the official UN report that came out of that event.

Now, many of those recommendations -- those of NLCHP, allied advocates, and survivors themselves -- are reflected in the 2013 VAWA reauthorization and are now the law of the land. This is a tremendous achievement that bring us all closer to this goal: a decent, safe home for all.