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(The RAND Blog)

After COVID-19: Prevent Homelessness Among Survivors of Domestic Abuse

Photo by lathuric/Getty Images

With the implementation of stay-at-home orders, victims found themselves trapped in a home with an abuser, leading to more frequent abuse. Now, victims who can leave abusers confront a new crisis: housing.

Los Angeles County is in a particularly vulnerable position battling two issues that could still get worse: a heightened level of homelessness, as the current homeless population jumped by almost 13 percent even before the economic impacts of the health crisis; and coronavirus contagions.

An American Life Panel survey, conducted by RAND, showed that 9 percent of respondents living with a partner reported an increase in physical or verbal abuse since the outbreak of COVID-19. Simultaneously, several major cities reported a drop in domestic violence reports to police during the COVID-19 pandemic, providing evidence that people may have been trapped with an abuser without privacy to call hotlines or create safety plans with advocates.

As states' stay-at-home guidance begins to lift, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is experiencing a spike in calls, which may suggest a stifled demand for protection created by stay-at-home orders.

Continued social distancing restrictions have led to a 50 percent reduction in the capacity of domestic violence shelters. Some shelters have placed survivors temporarily in hotel rooms, but this practice is unsustainable for most shelters that operate with minimal budgets.

Even before COVID-19, housing resources available to victims of domestic violence were insufficient. According to a report by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, on just one day last September, there were 11,336 requests for help that went unmet. Nearly 70 percent of all requests were for a safe place to stay. Without assistance, these survivors—typically women and children—are more likely to be forced into homelessness. Research in New York found that 80 percent of mothers and children experiencing homelessness had previously experienced domestic violence. Other studies found that between 22 percent and 57 percent of homeless women report that domestic violence directly led to their homelessness.

Between 22 percent and 57 percent of homeless women report that domestic violence directly led to their homelessness.

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Cases of COVID-19 in LA County are currently the highest in the nation, and there is no information suggesting steep declines are anywhere in sight.

As city and county officials grapple with the decision to slow down the reopening of the economy and re-implement stay-at-home orders, current victims of domestic violence may face two less than ideal options: remain at home in abusive conditions or try to find refuge in shelters that may not have room. As reopening continues, it may be more necessary than ever to find support for programs like California's Housing First (PDF). Unlike other assistance programs for survivors of abuse, California's Housing First program provides flexible funds for survivors to use for a range of financial needs including rent, car payments, food, and childcare. Such programs adapt to the needs of survivors in a way that promotes long term housing and financial stability.

If cases of COVID-19 continue to increase, and officials resurrect stay-at-home orders across the state, California officials could consider becoming proactive and creating opportunities for victims of abuse to escape dangerous housing environments. California and other states could learn from tactics used by European countries to identify those at risk of domestic abuse. Several countries implemented “silent and save services” where victims of domestic abuse can go to essential businesses, like pharmacies and supermarkets, and use a code word (“MASK 19”) to signal an urgent request for protection from domestic abusers. Such strategies could provide help to victims systematically and ensure survivors find open and safe housing and mitigate another surge in homelessness.

With the current spike of COVID-19 cases, the pandemic is not a thing of the past. Risk factors of household violence, like economic recessions and joblessness, are still present and so too are the risks of intimate partner violence. Now could be the best time to invest in programs that can help victims get out of unsafe living arrangements and into safe and stable housing before a second wave of COVID-19 cases pushes more families into unsafe environments.


Sierra Smucker is an associate policy researcher, Alicia Locker is an associate physical scientist and Aisha Najera Chesler is a mathematician at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.