The Devil They Know

As executive director and the only staff for Amikas, a non-profit helping to house homeless women and children, primarily veterans, I get calls from women in all kinds of desperate situations, including many who are ready to leave a violent abuser or have already left and are dealing with the consequences – homelessness, loss of children, lack of legal and emotional support and retreating to substance abuse. Domestic violence is all in the news right now, provoking discussions about why women stay in violent situations. All kinds of reasons are being suggested, as if one reason will be THE MAGIC REASON that can somehow be reasoned away. Because of the stigma our society associates with being a victim, admitting you are in a domestic violence situation feels shameful. People sometimes avoid DV victims because they don't want to put themselves and their family in danger. Employers think that women leaving a domestic violence situation will bring too much drama into the workplace, or the woman will miss work and be too distracted to focus on her job. And too many men (and women) still assume that victims of domestic violence probably deserved everything they got - just read the comments below any recent article on this topic.

These are just some of the many reasons why a woman doesn't leave a situation where she is being subjected to physical and mental assault from a partner. Another one is that she can’t count on being protected. It’s AFTER she leaves that a battered woman is the MOST vulnerable. One of our clients is raising her granddaughter because the child’s mom was murdered by her husband. Another client got a restraining order against her ex-husband and a week later he still hadn't been served. When she called me because he was pulling the air conditioner out of her living room window, trying to break in, it took me 30 minutes to get there and the police still hadn't arrived. I was there for an hour and the police never showed up. I’m tired of hearing excuses why the police don't want to go to DV calls.

Based on the women Amikas serves, I see the primary reason why victims of domestic violence don’t leave, is because they don’t have any place else to go. It overwhelms me to realize that in the 34 years since I had to flee a DV situation, that there is still no safe place for many victims of domestic violence to go. Still, after all this time, the consequence of leaving is that mothers will lose their children and live in destitute poverty. Still, after all this time, women who had somehow summoned the courage to leave, return to their abuser because it's better to be with the devil they know than the devil they don't. And until we, as a society, start asking why she has to be the one to leave, at the very least we need to be giving her someplace to leave to.

They didn’t have safe houses back in 1980 when I had to hide from my husband, but we are enlightened enough to have them now. The problem is that there simply are not enough and that’s because we haven’t made it a priority for funding. When I get a call from a DV victim, I often can’t find a single safe house in San Diego that has an opening. Even though we focus on housing veteran women, Amikas House is almost always full, with a long waiting list. Many of our clients were homeless as a result of leaving abusive relationships. Recently, we were going to put a woman who was 37 weeks pregnant, with two little children, on the sofa in the computer room at Amikas House, because her husband threw her out. How is that OK? -that a man, a Marine, can throw a woman about to give birth, and her two kids, out on the street on a Friday night when all agencies are closed? And when one of the largest agencies serving homeless people in San Diego County has to call on Amikas, an agency that gets no public funding, because they have no place to put this family, then something is wrong with the whole system.

I went to a park in East County last week to meet with a woman who had been living there for 3 months. When she tried to get a restraining order on her husband he turned around and put one on her - so now her youngest children are in foster care and her eldest is living with the grandmother so the woman can't even stay with her own mother, because her daughter is living there. She has had no legal counsel. She's been fighting this fight all alone, after serving our country in the Navy for four years. We put her into our AD-UP program just to get her out of this heat, even though she has no income to pay rent - because you can't get your life together, or get your children back, if you are living in the park. Do you think her husband is homeless?

There are no beds available for her, not in a safe house and not in emergency or transitional housing. Funding for our homeless programs is focused primarily on the chronically homeless - mostly men – because they are the ones who are the most “expensive” to taxpayers and are the most “unsightly” on our sidewalks. Meanwhile, the programs for women and families are being starved for funds. I was told that studies have shown that homeless families are “resilient”, and that they tend to somehow find their way out of homelessness without intervention! What the data doesn’t tell you is that women, and especially women with children, are the most vulnerable and that a woman living on the streets will be raped, usually within the first 48 hours!

The women Amikas serves are primarily veterans. They often experienced sexual assault while serving in the military and partner abuse when they returned. Without a safe place to sleep, these women have been raped, beaten and had their children taken from them. Women who are homeless are prime targets for prostitution and sex trafficking. For all the brouhaha about caring about our veterans, our clients are testament that women, even veterans, are still being treated like second-class human beings. The lack of resources and funding for agencies serving this vulnerable population is not only disgraceful, it’s also the answer overlooked to the question, “Why doesn’t she leave?”

Women with children aren't showing up in the annual Point-in-Time count that determines how HUD allocates funds, because they are deliberately invisible: couch surfing and sleeping in places where the police and CPS can’t find them. According to the 2014 PIT Count, there were 8,879 homeless individuals in San Diego County and 75% of them were men. But according to 211 San Diego, 4,242 women with children called for housing during FY 2013-14. And the San Diego Unified School District, which serves only a fraction of the children in the county, is reaching out to 5,588 students experiencing homelessness this year. It would seem that the data being used to determine who gets funding is skewed.

Amikas has been serving homeless women with children for four years. We get calls from women who have been referred to us from 211 and other large agencies every day. As I sit here writing this today, I have received four calls – all veterans, all with children, all out in this deadly heat with no place to go, and I have nothing to offer them. We should be expanding both our group housing and shared rental programs. Instead, we are so starved for funds and behind on our bills, that we may have to shut down.

It’s time we stopped asking why doesn’t she leave, and start demanding that she shouldn’t be the one who has to leave. It’s time we started asking ourselves why we haven’t made it safe for her to leave. Why haven’t we made this vulnerable population a priority when allocating funds? We should be committing funds to safe houses, transition to transition-in-place housing, case workers and resources for women and children and not re-victimizing the victims by asking them stupid questions.