Why do people experience homelessness? That is a question that comes with so many answers that it requires its own blog, but there is one primary cause that most in the general public don’t think of – relationship violence.
“We don’t often know the reasons someone is experiencing homelessness,” said Cathy Alderman, Vice President of Communications and Public Policy of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. “Rather than assuming the worst about the person, we should be concerned about what may have happened to them and how we can help.”
To gain a better understanding of the link between these two issues, we’re taking a look at the statistical prevalence of homelessness caused by relationship violence, its impact on rural communities and what it actually looks like from the perspective of someone who lived it.
By the Numbers
On any given night in Colorado there are over 10,900 people across the state living in emergency shelters, transitional housing, their vehicles or on the streets and riverbanks.1 This number doesn’t even include the people who have to stay with family or bounce around friends’ couches because they either can’t afford a place to live or are in danger if they go back to their own home.
“People experiencing relationship violence are often part of the ‘hidden homeless’,” said Stevi Gray, Mobile Advocacy Coordinator for S.A.R.A., Inc., in Fort Morgan. “They are more likely to be living in their cars, shelters or couch-hopping rather than living on the street. People tend to think about what they can see and what their stereotype of homelessness is.”
When considering additional data on the gender of those experiencing homelessness and the cause for that homelessness, the numbers become staggering. At any point in time in Colorado, there is an average of 1,404 women without their own safe place to stay because of relationship violence. Of those women, an average of 498 must resort to sleeping in their car, on the streets or by a riverbank.1,2
It’s Not Just a City Problem
Homelessness caused by relationship violence – just like homelessness in general – is not limited to the urban hubs along I-25. It is felt deeply in rural areas of the state where resources are even more scarce.
“Our rural community has limited affordable housing options, a lack of transitional housing facilities and a current low unemployment rate, making it difficult for survivors to find jobs that will help them sustain housing,” said Linzie Myers, Housing Coordinator for Southwest Safehouse in Durango.
These issues even exist in the wealthy resort communities that many would not typically associate with either homelessness or relationship violence.
“One thing that is unique in our area is that housing is so hard to find and so expensive that many people (experiencing abusive behaviors) stay because of lack of other options for housing,” said Shannon Meyer, Executive Director of Response in Aspen.
The Personal Impact
Statistics and perspectives on the issues of homelessness and relationship violence are staggering, but it is someone’s personal experience that provides a clear picture of this link.
“It was after the birth of my two sons that the violence first led me to experience homelessness,” said Theda Bruns. “My children and I would leave and try to escape his clutches. I would stay with family, friends and in cheap motels but I always got sucked back into the cycle of abuse. He would beat me, I would leave and then he would tell me just how sorry he was, it would never happen again and how much he loved me.”
It would take several attempts at leaving before Bruns was able to get out of the relationship and, ultimately, she’d end up without a home because of it. Left alone to raise teenage sons with insurmountable debt, no vehicle and no heat in the winter, she filed for bankruptcy, divorce and moved into her family’s home.
Despite being free from the abusive relationship, Bruns still had to deal with the shame associated with experienced homelessness or relationship violence. The presence of both in Bruns’ life, however, compounded each other and created feelings of depression, anxiety and deep despair.
“I feared I would be stereotyped with a common perception people have such as, ‘she is lazy’, or ‘she must be addicted to drugs or alcohol,” Bruns said. “Our society can be so harsh and I would rather not deal with the ugly stares and comments so I kept it to myself and put on a smile.”
Stand Up to Both
Although homelessness and relationship violence are complex issues that can’t be solved overnight, we all have the power to do something that addresses both. Right now that means providing much-needed resources to the countless people in our state experiencing abuse that are at risk of falling into the cycle of homelessness.
According to Gray, this includes providing those experiencing relationship violence with “low-barrier flexible financial assistance for things like rent, mortgage, childcare, transportation, car repairs and debt payments”, as well as a “variety of housing options from short-term, emergency housing to long-term, sustainable and affordable housing”.
There are also numerous programs across Colorado – such as the Home Again Partnership at Southwest Safehouse – that assist victims of crime with landlord advocacy, housing referrals, temporary financial assistance, transportation, obtaining housing supplies and relocation.
Myers sees the impact of these projects only growing as we learn more about how these issues intersect.
“People in individual communities and across Colorado can help address this issue by educating themselves on the issue of homelessness, relationship violence, and mental illness,” she said. “The more that members of our state and communities engage with resources, the more communities will have the ability to alleviate the issue and impact of homelessness and relationship violence.”
From a personal perspective, this effort centers around our culture’s perception of the issue of homelessness. That not only means changing stereotypes but treating people experiencing it with dignity and respect rather than judgement and disdain.
“Our bad situation doesn’t make us who we are,” Bruns said. “I said it would never happen to me. I would never be in an abusive relationship. I never thought in a million years I would be without a home. I was employed. I came from a middle-class family and was educated. It can happen to anyone.”
1U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD 2017 Continuum of Care Homeless Assistance Programs Homeless Populations and Subpopulations (2017).
2Wilder Research Center. Homeless in Minnesota (2016).