Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Tucked into a back hallway on the fifth floor of the D.C. Superior Court is Survivors and Advocates for Empowerment’s office.

In the waiting room, a young mother bounces a toddler on one knee while her second child plays on the floor with wooden blocks painted in primary colors. A stack of used parenting books sits on a table next to her. On the other side of the wall, fluorescent lights glare over a maze of gray cubicles, where 15 workers field calls—about 900 a month—from survivors of intimate partner violence.

Since 2009, DC SAFE has partnered with a handful of city agencies to reduce domestic violence-related homicides that occur in the District—homicides that led Chief Cathy Lanier to say this June that the Metropolitan Police Department is “really struggling with… violence in the home.”

“What is driving homicides? A significant increase in fatal family violence, including intimate partner violence, child abuse, and neglect, is driving homicides,” Lanier told the D.C. Council this March. Domestic violence homicides, according to an MPD spokeswoman, increased from 9 (in 2012) to 12 (in 2013) to 19 (in 2014). Of those, 3, 6, and 9, respectively, were classified as intimate partner homicides. So far this year, 8 domestic violence homicides have been reported, 3 of which were classified as intimate partner.

DC SAFE screens about 5,000 clients a year—1,200 of whom are considered at high risk for homicide. It also runs SAFE Space, the only 24-hour, seven-days-a-week crisis shelter in the city. DC SAFE places survivors in its facility within an hour of the reported incident and hosts them for up to 30 days. At any given time, more than 20 families are staying in that shelter—filling it to capacity. About 315 families stay in the shelter each year.

Easy access to emergency housing is what allows survivors to escape their abusers. But in a city where affordable housing is rapidly disappearing, finding survivors a long-term, safe place to live is becoming increasingly difficult. SAFE Space, too, is facing its own search for a permanent home.

Intimate partner violence is just one form of domestic violence. The others include family-wide and shared-residence violence, meaning abuse between unrelated parties who live together.

Domestic violence, and in particular, intimate partner violence, is the largest contributing factor to family homelessness. According to a point-in-time count conducted by regional agencies this January, 10.7 percent of homeless single adults in D.C. reported a history of domestic violence, while 27 percent of homeless adults in families reported the same. Regionwide, the number of people in families “whose current episode of homelessness was the result of domestic violence rose from 261 in 2014 to 1,101 [in 2015], a significant 322 percent increase,” according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Eighty percent of domestic violence survivors seeking housing assistance from DC SAFE have children; on average, a DC SAFE client with children has four. Those numbers are drastically different from what Natalia Otero saw when she co-founded DC SAFE almost 10 years ago.

“The face of homelessness in this city has changed a lot,” Otero says of the number of children her organization now serves. “That to me is concerning.”

A successful domestic violence survivor network operates along a continuum of service, providing 30-day crisis shelters, 90-day emergency shelters, and two-year temporary housing. The problem with D.C.’s survivor support isn’t in crisis intervention; DC SAFE’s lethality assessment program gives city agencies like MPD, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, and local hospitals a mechanism for identifying potential victims of abuse. The problem is with mid- and long-term shelter: The District’s competitive real estate landscape, as well as its complicated victim compensation programs and antiquated city code, make it difficult to create a consistently reliable network of places to stay after the survivor is out of immediate danger.

“Domestic violence-specific shelter options are relatively limited in this city,” Otero says. “There’s a big gap on the city services end to get people into permanent housing, which is why we rely on the transitional nonprofit providers, but there’s a big shortage there too… We don’t turn anyone away. And we frequently max out on our space.”

DC SAFE isn’t alone. A 2014 point-in-time survey by the National Network to End Domestic Violence showed that 77 requests for service from survivors of domestic violence were unfufilled in D.C. on a single day in September. Twenty-eight percent of those requests were for housing assistance, and the percentage of requests that went unmet increased by almost half in just a year.

“For every one survivor and her family that we’re able to help, we have to turn four away,” says Peg Hacskaylo, executive director of the District Alliance for Safe Housing. “There are so few safe housing options.” The organization served around 300 women and children last year in its housing programs, which include emergency and transitional units. Heads of these families are primarily African-American women in their mid-20s with two children under the age of five.

“The difficulty that we face is how we place [survivors] after they’ve exited those short-term placements,” she says. “There aren’t enough mid – to long-term options for those families, and that’s where the crunch really happens.” When looking for housing, domestic violence organizations must also address the “added barrier of [the survivor’s] safety needs and the fact that they’ve experienced trauma.”

Karma Cottman, executive director of the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence, says the number of unfullfilled requests is consistent annually.

“Domestic violence shelters are supposed to house victims for 30 days. That’s not happening in our city at all,” she says. “We’re talking an average of six months [that families are staying in a shelter], because there is no affordable housing.”

“The problem is definitely getting harder, getting worse,” Hacskaylo says. “I think that’s just a combination of the total lack of affordable housing [as well as the Recession]… Families who have been doubled up for a long time, who have been trying to cope with bad situations—those bad situations got to the breaking point where survivors need to get into a safe place.”

Partner agencies in the District are struggling to meet the demand for domestic violence-specific housing, too: When SAFE Space is at capacity, staffers can direct survivors to general homeless shelters or acquire space in subsidized housing through the D.C. Housing Authority.

Survivors already receiving assistance through DCHA’s Housing Choice Voucher Program (formerly known as Section 8 vouchers) can apply for an emergency transfer request, which allows the family to search for another unit to rent. Rick White, DCHA’s communications director, says the turnaround between the request and issuance of a transfer is about 24 hours for those whose status as a domestic violence survivor has been confirmed by DC SAFE or DASH. White says DCHA doesn’t keep numbers on how many emergency vouchers the agency issues annually.

While the transfer is an option for people who already have a voucher, it’s not useful for people outside of the program who need help now: A person must be approved for a Housing Choice Voucher before she is eligible for an emergency transfer, and White says the HCV waitlist (which closed in 2012) is 40,000 people long. Instead, Otero says, the “big push” is for rapid rehousing, a subsidy program that allows families to rent a unit at one third of market value for up to one year.

Even then, units are scarce, and Otero says a one-year buffer between survivors fleeing a home and affording rent at full market price is difficult for families who—at best—are single income.

“Affordable housing is one of the biggest obstacles to a survivor’s road to recovery,” says Dora Taylor, a spokesperson for D.C.’s Department of Human Services. “There are occasions when no beds are available in domestic violence shelters, and survivors may receive emergency housing assistance through the emergency shelter system.”

Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander, who chairs the Committee on Health and Human Services, acknowledges that the overflow is dangerous for survivors of domestic violence, as general shelters don’t always provide survivor-specific resources like counseling.

“[Families] have more protections if they have shelters specifically for them,” Alexander says.

A report from DC SAFE highlights the relative affordability of investing in domestic violence-specific housing options: While DHS spends about $156 per night to shelter a homeless family, the domestic violence-specific equivalent costs about $130 per night.

The D.C. Superior Court’s Crime Victims Compensation Fund will reimburse organizations like DC SAFE who pay to house survivors in shelters or hotels on a short-term basis. Spokesperson Leah Gurowitz says CVC paid about $8 million in housing costs last year (that money comes from a fund of court fines and fees paid to the District). DC SAFE must bill CVC for each family it houses, a system which Otero compares to billing for medical insurance. “It’s very arduous,” she says.

D.C. Code requires survivors report their abuse to MPD or the D.C. Court to qualify for reimbursement through the CVC fund. Although Otero calls the D.C. court system “among the friendliest in the country” toward survivors of domestic violence, she acknowledges that many survivors—about 20 percent of those who seek emergency housing assistance from DC SAFE—don’t feel comfortable reporting the relevant crimes to authorities.

DC SAFE absorbs the cost of housing those survivors, eating through hundreds of thousands of dollars of its $1.8 million budget every year.

“People shouldn’t make the decision to follow through a criminal process if they feel it’s unsafe because their housing depends on it. We struggle with it a lot,” Otero says. “It’s a constant, like, ‘OK can we give her five days? Can we give her a week? Can we press on our partner agency to house her faster?’ Because we can only afford to keep her for eight days.”

To complicate matters, DC SAFE’s crisis shelter—the District’s only domestic violence crisis shelter—is facing a lease expiration at the end of next year.

When DC SAFE signed the lease for its crisis shelter space in 2011, the building was about to go into foreclosure. Otero says she always saw the building as a temporary home for SAFE Space but “didn’t plan on how difficult it would be to get a permanent building.”

Now, DC SAFE is teaming up with Building Partnerships—a development firm that specializes in affordable housing—to buy land and construct its own crisis shelter built. That will include about 10 more units than it currently has to meet the demand for crisis shelter.

DC SAFE has filed a joint application with BP through the Department of Housing and Community Development for a parcel of public land, but Otero thinks DC SAFE will fight an uphill battle to receive the bid. Even if DC SAFE does receive the land, the total investment to build the shelter could be between $5 and $8 million—quadruple the organization’s annual budget.

“The problem is it’s really sexy property,” Otero says. “It’s hard to compete in development in D.C. if you’re a small nonprofit looking to build a shelter versus a developer who wants to build a condo.”

If DC SAFE doesn’t receive the parcel, Otero says the organization will try to buy a small building in a quiet part of the city. That, too, comes with its own set of limitations: a six- to nine-month appeals process with the D.C. Zoning Commission to permit the construction of a domestic violence shelter (“it’s nearly impossible to find a building that’s already zoned to be a crisis shelter”); a seller who might be unwilling to hold off on the sale of the building for that time (“you have to find a seller that’s down with the cause”); and neighbors who might not feel comfortable with having a shelter in their neighborhood (“it’s kind of the whole ‘not in my backyard.’”). Plus, DC SAFE would still need a community bank to finance the project.

“I guess what my perspective really is is that there’s something systemically or inherently cumbersome about the way these things happen for nonprofits,” Otero says.

This spring, Cottman and other advocates headed to the Wilson Building to testify in favor of additional resources for domestic violence survivors, like trauma counseling and resource pamphlets in languages other than English.

Initially, the Bowser administration’s proposed fiscal year 2016 budget transferred $2.5 million out of the Crime Victims Assistance Fund, according to a Council budget document. Cottman says it was Chairman Phil Mendelson and Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie who made sure that funding was restored.

The city has allocated about $1.3 million in local funds to DHS’s domestic violence services for fiscal year 2016, a 130 percent increase from last year. The budget provides an additional $719,000 to DHS for housing and services for domestic violence survivors, while the Office of Victim Services’ budget increased by $167,000. Cottman calls the budget increases “amazing.”

“The Council—particularly Councilmembers Mendelson, McDuffie, [Mary] Cheh, and Alexander—really came together to figure out how we were going to get that $2.5 million back. But we’re seeing the Council as a whole really step up and figure out how to build a reliable safety net for survivors,” Cottman says.

Christina Harper, deputy communications director for the mayor, says the administration’s plan to address homelessness, Homeward D.C., will increase the number of affordable and permanent housing units that would benefit “all subpopulations,” including survivors.

But cities across the country, including D.C., face unique challenges when trying to connect survivors with shelter and permanent housing. Federal law prohibits D.C. from entering information about domestic violence survivors into the Homeless Management Information System, which allows the city to analyze a client’s data and connect her with the appropriate resources. This is just one of the “systemic barriers that have developed over time,” Hacskaylo says. “Those survivors that we work with end up getting screened out of all of the options that are made available to families in the homeless system.”

“What ends up happening is that victims fall through the cracks. They either end up on the streets or going back to their abusers because they have nowhere else to go.”

Harper says the city is “working with stakeholders to compile better data on the size, needs, and circumstances of [the survivor] population” to close the gap. D.C.’s Interagency Council on Homelessness, also, is looking for ways to include survivors in the continuum of care, Hacskaylo says.

District agencies are also taking an inventory of all available housing units in the city, including of the available transitional housing.

“We expect some of the units could be repurposed as targeted programing for [domestic violence] survivors to increase the number of emergency resources available for this population,” Harper says.

The city has also made changes at the assessment level. Since June, DASH employees have been embedded at the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, where the city’s homeless families go for assessment and placement, and at the D.C. General shelter. At the latter, DASH works with staff to ensure that families “are met with a trauma-informed response,” are “linked with domestic violence services,” and have their safety needs met, says Hacskaylo. Her organization is working with staff at both locations to “make sure that survivors have access to safe housing along the continuum.”

Exactly what kind of housing depends on the survivor’s needs and options.

“Our first response is going to be to assess her safety risk and what her needs are and what she really wants to do,” Hacskaylo says. “We really have had an incredible amount of success keeping survivors in their home,” whether that be through emergency financial assistance or working with a landlord to “get the abuser ordered out of the residence.” For survivors without any housing options or at especially high-risk for harm, DASH works with other nonprofits in the city to find appropriate shelter.

“We’re really focused on helping the city to put a variety of different programs in place,” Hacskaylo says. This includes increasing the number of mid- and long-term housing options, ensuring families have access to the existing housing continuum, and preventing survivors from becoming homeless in the first place.

Abraham Ahern, DC SAFE’s strategic oversight manager, says he is “heartened” by the “proactive approach” the Bowser administration is taking on homelessness and domestic violence. “The initiatives are ambitious but innovative solutions, and effective policy can only come from far-reaching goals,” he says.

“It takes all of us coming to the table, willing to create change,” he says. “Nonprofits cannot solve these challenges alone.”