By Juliette Terzieff
Sunday, October 16, 2005
The Violence Against Women Act was reauthorized in time for Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October. As lawmakers debate which programs to fund advocates say transitional housing is a top priority.
BUFFALO, N.Y. (WOMENSENEWS)--Monique Nicholson has something that has long eluded her: a life to call her own.
By age 19, Nicholson had spent years in and out of New York City area group homes and shelters, given birth to her daughter Imani, and found herself in an abusive relationship she couldn't seem to escape.
"He just kept coming. No matter where I went, he found me," the now 27-year-old Nicholson says of her abuser, Imani's father. "He would beat me in front of the baby, people on the street. It didn't matter who saw. He didn't care."
Out of desperation Nicholson took what money she had saved from a part-time job, about $350, and boarded the first available bus out of the city. It was headed to Buffalo, N.Y.
"I didn't know where I was going, but I knew I just had to get out," she says of the bus ride she took in late 2000.
When she got off, she survived for a few days on her money, but knew it wouldn't last. So she started asking at local churches and businesses where she could find some help. They pointed her to the YWCA and its transitional housing program.
With Congress now considering how to appropriate funds from legislation that authorizes $3.95 billion over the next four years to programs that combat domestic violence and sexual assault, many advocates are pushing for what Nicholson happened to find: free and secure living conditions for 18 to 24 months.
"Every service provider we are in contact with lists transitional housing as their No. 1 need, and the programs in existence do not come close to meeting the need," says Allison Randall, public policy specialist for the National Network to End Domestic Violence in Washington, D.C.
Randall says the main reason women return to abusive situations is out of financial dependence and that emergency shelters cannot provide long-term help. "It is just not possible to rebuild a life in 90 days or less at a shelter."
Shelters are designed to provide short-term aid. While the average stay at an emergency shelter is 60 days, it takes a homeless family an average of 6 to 10 months to secure housing. Transitional housing programs can provide homes for domestic violence survivors for as long as two years.
Randall says that while she is aware of no official counts of transitional housing programs, 3,000 domestic violence agencies are seeking federal funding and 2,000 of those are seeking funds for emergency shelters.
Within the last month both houses of Congress overwhelmingly voted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act until 2009, which includes funding for a myriad of programs from emergency shelters to hotlines.
Over the next few months, legislators will consider what types of programs to fund and for how much.
Lawmakers in the past have often approved less money than was authorized. While $30 million was authorized for transitional housing in 2005, for instance, $12.5 million wound up being approved, down from $15 million in 2004.
With that in mind, advocates are keeping a worried eye on the current appropriations process.
However, advocates say a signal of the funding tide shifting toward transitional housing came last month. On Sept. 11, the Justice Department awarded $22 million out of an act to protect children to programs that help domestic-violence survivors and their children find permanent housing. Since the money will go to 116 communities, Randall says it won't add up to a lot of money per program. Nonetheless, she says, the funding shows the importance of these programs is beginning to be recognized.
When asked how much funding would provide all the transitional housing needed by those fleeing domestic abuse, Randall says that figure is hard to quantify. "The scope of the problem is large and service providers we deal with report that 70 percent of the women who go into emergency shelters need some sort of transitional assistance."
While each housing program is slightly different, most only serve women who are free of drug or alcohol addiction and who are trying to extricate themselves from abusive relationships. Housing locations are kept confidential because in nearly half the cases, the accused abuser attempts to seek out the survivor.
Katey Joyce is director of the Buffalo chapter of Haven House, which runs transitional housing facilities in cooperation with the YWCA. "One of the biggest challenges is helping these women realize they can make it on their own," she says. "For many clients, this means overcoming a lifetime of being told they are inadequate and incapable."
Service providers know that some women will leave the program early, return to the abusive relationship or find themselves in another abusive situation with a new partner after they leave the program.
With that in mind, providers try to give clients life skills, whatever the future may hold for them.
"Every woman gets something out of it," says Haven House's Joyce. "Maybe it's a skill or two, learning to pay utility bills, how to advocate for your child at school or vocational skills, but no one leaves empty-handed."
In families where children are involved, battles over custody, child support and visitation may force the survivor to come face-to-face with her abuser, making it harder to break the abuser's hold.
"It's all about starting with baby steps and then moving on to bigger and bigger steps until the client has taken control of their lives," says Tara Heavern, director of housing for the Buffalo YWCA.
Five years after she fled her abusive boyfriend, Nicholson is still plagued by persistent anxiety attacks. He continues to challenge the child support agreement in court. The address of her apartment remains confidential and her telephone service is set up to receive only identified callers.
During her 24-month transitional housing program, Nicholson had a free and safe place to live. She received counseling to help her earn a high-school equivalency diploma and learn basic life skills. Two weeks ago, after her transitional housing program ended, she qualified for a Section 8 housing voucher that now provides her with public housing.
These days, her life revolves around attending classes and taking care of her daughter, now 8, after school. She hopes to continue her education and eventually become a chef.
"It's hard to say exactly where we go from here," she says, "but Imani and I often talk about having a home of our own with a backyard and a little kiddie pool."
Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Buffalo, N.Y. She has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International and the London Sunday Times during time spent in the Balkans, the Middle East and South Asia.
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