Angela estimated that she and her four children have moved 10 times since they fled her abusive husband in 2017. She doesn’t always have the money to move, but when he finds out where they live, she has no choice. One time when he found Angela, he showed up with a handgun, threatened to kill her and the children, and forced her back to their old home.
The couple separated in 2017 after he was charged with spousal abuse and multiple counts of child endangerment. Angela filed for divorce at the beginning of 2020, just as COVID-19 began spreading in the U.S. Family courts across the country shut down, making it impossible for her to finalize the divorce and cut ties with her abusive husband for good.
“The day he was arrested and charged is the day me and my children ran,” Angela said. “We’ve been running ever since.”
When pandemic-related shutdowns hit, Angela lost her job. She and her children first lived in a domestic violence shelter where she was terrified they would contract COVID-19. Later, they moved in with friends before relocating to another state to live with family. Last year, Angela’s children went to three different schools.
“It breaks my heart when I have to tell my kids we have to move again, somewhere completely different and they’ll have to make new friends,” she said. “But I constantly have to look over my shoulder to make sure he doesn’t find us. When he does, we have to pick up and move. We don’t always have the funds, but it doesn’t matter.”
Since Angela (which is not her real name) spoke with HuffPost in May, her now-ex-husband found out where she and the kids are. They’re set to move again in July.
Domestic violence survivors like Angela experience housing insecurity at a disproportionate rate and as a direct result of the violence they’ve endured. From an inability to pay rent because of economic abuse to a violent partner causing property damage, there are many reasons victims find themselves on the brink of losing their home. Situations like Angela’s, where a survivor is no longer in an abusive relationship but is still fleeing an abuser, also contribute to unstable housing situations, even if money is no object.
“The day he was arrested and charged is the day me and my children ran. We’ve been running ever since.”
As with so many things, the pandemic only made a bad situation worse and widened already-deep cracks in the system meant to protect survivors. Experts believe the isolation of stay-at-home orders exacerbated situations of intimate partner violence. Meanwhile, living in a congregate setting like a shelter came with the threat of contracting COVID-19. Add in the economic downturn that left many victims and abusers unemployed and an eviction moratorium that could likely create a financial cliff for renters once it lifts, and any semblance of stability survivors had before quickly vanished during the pandemic.
“COVID has created this additional layer of life or death choices that women are often trying to navigate on behalf of themselves and their kids that can feel impossible to figure out,” said Julia Devanthéry, an attorney and lecturer at Harvard Law School who founded the Housing Justice for Survivors Project at Harvard’s Legal Services Center
Devanthéry trains law students to represent tenants experiencing housing insecurity due to domestic violence or sexual assault, with the goal of preventing homelessness by offering free legal services to people who need to get out of abusive situations but might not have the financial means. Her entire caseload right now is made up of survivors; 98% are mothers who are the head of their households.
“Relocation is a huge life event. It’s hard under the best circumstances to pick up and move,” Devanthéry said. “But under the worst possible circumstances you can imagine: where you’re scared for your life, the well-being of your kids, you don’t have a lot of choice and resources, and there’s a bureaucratic challenge around every corner? It’s terrifying. Especially during COVID.”
There were many things working against survivors of domestic and sexual violence long before COVID-19 arrived. To start, the sheer lack of affordable housing in the U.S.: Only about 1 in 4 families who would qualify for subsidized housing actually have it. Affordable housing is especially important for survivors of domestic or sexual violence who often need to move quickly and don’t have many resources.
Even if a survivor has the means to pick up and move immediately, often the housing they’re in limits their ability to leave. A voucher tenant has to go through the bureaucratic process of getting a voucher, finding a home and getting that new place approved. A tenant who lives in public housing has to get the housing authority to sign off on their transfer, which can take years. Project-based housing may not be able to transfer a tenant at all. A private tenant has a little more control, but breaking a lease can be very costly and be an additional hurdle to a survivor’s ability to just pick up and go. In some areas, like Philadelphia, there are protections that allow survivors to break their lease without punishment if they are experiencing domestic or sexual violence, but those protections are the exception, not the rule.
Left with few choices, many victims’ only option is to move into a temporary shelter instead of long-term stable housing. Shelters can only house people for so long, though, and victims are eventually forced back into their initial bad situation: choosing between homelessness or moving back in with an abuser.
“Relocation is a huge life event. It’s hard under the best circumstances to pick up and move. But under the worst possible circumstances you can imagine: where you’re scared for your life, the well-being of your kids, you don’t have a lot of choice and resources, and there’s a bureaucratic challenge around every corner? It’s terrifying. Especially during COVID.”
It’s a constant feeling of being stuck, said Rachel Garland, the managing attorney of the Housing Unit at Philadelphia’s Community Legal Services.
“That’s what this level of violence is ― whether it’s domestic violence or sexual assault,” she said. “You’re facing an emotionally traumatic event or series of events in which in order to get out you need to be able to think very clearly and have all of your resources available to you. And yet because of the trauma of the event, it often can make someone incapable of figuring out any of the stuff needed to be able to get out.”
When Poverty And Abuse Collide
While not all victims of domestic and sexual violence are women, the vast majority are. And women experience higher rates of poverty than men and they earn less due to the gender wage gap.
Because women are more likely to be poor, they’re more likely to face housing insecurity ― whether that means getting evicted or losing housing subsidies like a Section 8 voucher. Women of color experience eviction at higher rates. In poor Black and Latinx neighborhoods, “eviction is to women what incarceration is to men,” Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond wrote in his 2016 book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.”
The pandemic has only exacerbated these inequalities. As of April, over 4 million women in the U.S. are unemployed; some were laid off, while others were forced to leave the workforce to take care of children or elderly parents at home. Child care and hospitality — two industries where women of color are overrepresented — have experienced the deepest job cuts. Additionally, women of color who remained employed throughout the pandemic were more likely to be working as essential workers, and were therefore more at risk of contracting COVID-19.
Now, add in that many of these women are also experiencing intimate partner violence or sexual assault, and housing options become even more limited. Nonpayment of rent is the main reason victims experience housing insecurity, according to Devanthéry and several other attorneys who spoke with HuffPost. But why they can’t pay rent is due to their situation: For example, they have a financially abusive partner, or they’ve moved into a home they can’t afford but needed to flee an abuser. Often, a victim is splitting rent with her abuser and if she wants to file a restraining order against him, she has to also weigh the possibility of not being able to pay rent without him.
“You often have survivors making these life or death choices: Do they keep a roof over their heads with their abuser because they know for sure they can’t afford rent on their own? Or do they call the police and get a restraining order?” Devanthéry said. “Often when survivors choose their safety, they are effectively choosing homelessness.”
A report published by the Me Too organization last fall found that female survivors of domestic and sexual violence who lacked financial resources during the pandemic were more likely to return to their abusive partner. Women who reported a high likelihood of returning to abusers had access to an average of only $3,700; survivors who reported no likelihood of returning to their abusers had more than double that amount.
“What we found, while sobering, wasn’t shocking,” Tarana Burke, founder of the Me Too movement, told HuffPost in November. “COVID-19 illuminates the ways in which our social and economic safety net catches some while allowing those who are most vulnerable to fall through the cracks.”
“COVID-19 illuminates the ways in which our social and economic safety net catches some while allowing those who are most vulnerable to fall through the cracks.”
Domestic violence victims can also experience housing insecurity because of their abuser’s actions: Some face eviction due to criminal activity by the abuser, or because the police come too often and disturb neighbors. Sometimes abusers intentionally sabotage a victim’s home by damaging property.
If Section 8 housing vouchers are terminated for victims, it’s usually because police executed a search warrant at their home related to their abuser’s criminal activity. In subsidized housing, landlords can evict tenants for a domestic violence incident, and victims can only keep their housing if they can prove in court that they are the victim, not the abuser. (It’s worth noting that tenants rarely get to court to prove their status without legal help. And even then, a victim has to first acknowledge to themselves they are in an abusive relationship and then be able to prove the abuse and stand up in court to tell a judge about it.)
Although sexual assault and domestic violence fall under the same umbrella, victims of sexual violence often have different needs. Sexual assault survivors do sometimes need to move out of their homes due to an imminent threat from a perpetrator who knows where they live. More often, however, the trauma of having to live in the house you were assaulted in forces victims to move.
“Survivors of sexual assault oftentimes have unique needs that are not addressed in systems that are set up to serve survivors of domestic violence,” said Renee Williams, a senior staff attorney at the National Housing Law Project.
And for some, sexual assault isn’t a singular incident by an existing partner. Much of the sexual violence that can jeopardize a person’s housing happens between a landlord and tenant. If a tenant can’t pay rent, a landlord or property manager might ask for sexual favors for himself or even friends or family members. These situations may start consensually but can quickly turn abusive.
“Tenants who for the past year have been in a pandemic and are worried about rent. There’s no prospect for gainful employment any time in the near future,” Garland said of sexually exploitative landlord-tenant relationships. “Where is the tenant going to go? How are they going to get out of that? Especially if the landlord lives in the building or neighborhood.”
The Looming End Of Eviction Moratoriums
Domestic violence victims and survivors of sexual assault and stalking are afforded housing protections under the Violence Against Women Act. Congress failed to reauthorize VAWA in 2019, but the law’s housing protections, among other things, are still in place.
The 2013 reauthorization of VAWA included robust housing protections for gender-based violence survivors. A survivor cannot be denied housing because of the abuse they experienced and they cannot be evicted or have their Section 8 voucher terminated if the reasons they’re facing eviction are due to the abuse. Survivors are protected under VAWA if an attorney can prove that nonpayment of rent, property damage, disruption to the neighborhood or any other issues that often spark an eviction notice is related to domestic violence.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development created another protection under the 2013 VAWA that allows survivors to self-certify their status as a victim of gender-based violence.
“Not everybody has a paper trail of their abuse, whether it’s a police report or restraining order. These are often highly private experiences that people feel a lot of shame about and they don’t always report,” Devanthéry said.
“Moving away whenever possible from this idea that law enforcement gives credibility to victims is really important,” she added, pointing out that the police are often not a safe option, especially for survivors who may be undocumented or a person of color. “We should never be tying house protections or benefits to contact with law enforcement or the criminal legal system.”
“When the eviction moratorium lifts, it will just make it more difficult for these tenants. There might be a lot of uncertainties, but now at least there’s a certain level of stability around the eviction piece.”
Federal and state eviction moratoriums created during COVID-19 have saved lives and kept people in their homes during a devastating pandemic. But such protections will likely lift as more and more people get vaccinated and the country opens up. Millions of tenants, many of whom like Angela are survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault, are bracing for the impact.
“When the eviction moratorium lifts, it will just make it more difficult for these tenants. There might be a lot of uncertainties, but now at least there’s a certain level of stability around the eviction piece,” said Garland, the attorney at Philadelphia’s Community Legal Services. “Lifting the moratorium will turn that stability into a question mark. Will they be evicted? How soon will they be evicted? Is there anything they can put in place before the eviction happens to try to protect against it?”
As many experts emphasized to HuffPost, there are a number of resources and protections available to survivors. The biggest hurdle is getting those resources into victims’ hands and educating them about the protections available to them. Nationally, more than $45 billion has been allocated toward pandemic-related rental assistance for tenants and landlords, both now and when the eviction moratorium lifts. But so much of the impact of those federal dollars will be contingent on how effective the distribution of that money is.
In Angela’s experience, getting rental relief has been extremely slow and frustrating. She only just received the money she applied for back in February. And the delay has set her back even further: Her landlord is still threatening to turn off her water and sending her eviction notices because she now owes money for late fees.
“They promise you this money but they don’t send it when they say they will,” Angela said, adding that she wishes she could work instead but “there was no way to make money” during the COVID-19 shutdowns. “There’s no timeline they can give you on when the money will be sent out.”
But Angela, her new husband, and her four kids won’t be there for much longer anyway, since her ex found out where they live. The move isn’t without its own financial hardships: Her husband has to completely restart his business, and they’ll be moving in with family because they can’t afford their own place. At least in this new place, Angela noted, she won’t have to apply for rental assistance.
Devanthéry, who works with survivors like Angela every day, said it’s been bleak when she’s stepped back and assessed all the obstacles victims have faced during the pandemic — but she finds solace in recognizing what they’ve collectively survived.
“It’s important to focus on what’s been hard and really damaging for survivors during the past year, but honoring survival is also important,” she said. “So many of the folks that we represent are surviving ― whether they’re still in abusive relationships, years out of them or just weeks. Getting out of this pandemic alive, in addition to surviving the experience of being tortured by your intimate partner, is something to take a moment to recognize and honor.”
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline. In the U.S., call 1-866-331-9474 or text “loveis” to 22522 for the National Dating Abuse Helpline. Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.