At Hartford’s South Park Inn, a handful of women are gathered in the homeless shelter’s day room.
Five are on the run from husbands/boyfriends/partners. One was beaten for not having dinner on the table. The first punch knocked her out, and after multiple surgeries, she left on a bus ride to faraway Connecticut. She wants to learn medical billing. She’ll get a new name and erase her past, she said.
It’s rare to hear a woman in a homeless shelter speak freely about her violent past. Traditionally, homeless shelters have shied away from accepting women who are fleeing domestic violence, for fear their abusers will follow and harm staff or residents. Shelters – domestic violence and homeless – have security systems, but staff members are stretched, already.
Rarely have the two shelter groups shared services. Homeless shelter workers consider themselves concerned with the Big Picture, although by all accounts the vast majority of women in homeless shelters have a history of domestic violence. Those women are, however, savvy enough to disguise any hint of domestic violence, said Michele Waldner, of Middletown’s New Horizons Domestic Violence Services.
Instead, homeless shelter workers tend to refer known domestic violence survivors to a domestic violence shelter – which might already be full.
It has been a case of silo thinking at its worst.
But that might be changing under the leadership of Carol Walter at the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness. Last month, the coalition held a two-day training session in Meriden that included a workshop for domestic violence and homeless shelter workers to talk to one another – a rarity, said Sarah Zucker, of CCEH, who organized the workshop.
It’s a conversation that’s been a long time coming.
Organized activism against domestic violence sprang up in Connecticut in the early ’70s. The women’s movement was in full swing, and as men and women began to examine society’s inequities, their attention fell on domestic violence. Domestic violence shelters like Hartford’s Interval House and New Britain’s Prudence Crandall Center for Women opened their doors. Sometimes, the shelters were little more than a spare bedroom in a rented apartment, but they were safe havens.
About the same time, homeless shelters began to dot the landscape to answer a more general, though equally dire, need. Originally meant strictly as short-term emergency housing, the shelters quickly became entrenched as an alternative to longer-term solutions to homelessness.
Domestic violence permeates both shelter systems. The National Alliance to End Homelessness says domestic violence is one of the most-cited reasons for homelessness for families. This year’s point-in-time survey of Connecticut’s homeless said adults in families cite domestic violence as the second-most frequent reason for leaving their last residence. “Rent problems” was the first, but as some activists point out, “rent problems” can include one partner taking undue control of the family finances.
For researchers, gathering data is a maddeningly inexact science. Still, what numbers that do exist paint a stark picture. A Massachusetts study that’s frequently cited in research said that 92 percent of homeless women had experienced severe assault – sexual or other physical abuse – at some point in their lives.
A study last year by Eleanor Lyon and Shannon Lane, both of UConn’s School of Social Work, and Anne Menard, of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, surveyed domestic violence programs in eight states. Among other things, they found that women most desire safety. Their needs include affordable housing and knowing their options, and most were nervous about contacting a domestic violence program, given the stigma.
“Families of homicide victims say the same thing, that there’s a stigma, and if you hang around them too much, you might catch it,” Lyon said. All shelters were fighting for funds – and the survey was conducted before the economic downturn.
If anything, the financial outlook for shelters in both systems is even more grim now. If they haven’t already, shelters are considering cutting services or staff, said Linda Blozie, of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
At the Meriden training, one woman who works at a homeless shelter expressed safety concerns about domestic violence victims. Shannon Lane, who was leading the discussion, said: “Shelters have to realize they are already serving the domestic violence population. Now how will you do that well?”
And how will shelters continue to fund themselves? Said Lyon: “When I was coordinator of a shelter in northeastern Connecticut back in ’78, I used to troop up to the Capitol and lobby for funds. When I think back to those days, we’ve actually come a very long way. And then I think about how far we need to be. We’re nowhere near there.”
ON THE WEB: Visit courant.com/ domesticviolence to view previous stories about domestic violence and to find links to information and helpful resources.
INSIDE: For the past few years, advocates have been lobbying for more help for battered women. But the funding is hard to get.
SECOND OF THREE PARTS: By SUSAN CAMPBELL The Hartford Courant
October 26, 2009