general newsletter

When the Basics are Best – Sector Leadership Spot

June 1, 2020

By Peg Hacskaylo, National Alliance for Safe Housing

Domestic violence (DV) programs have had to respond a confluence of demands in the midst of the global pandemic, all while also working to ensure the safety and health of their staff and housing, with some programs limiting their staff to skeletal crews, conducting regular and deep cleaning of their facilities, instituting policies to prevent COVID from spreading in the programs (many without necessary PPE to provide services safely), and while also facing reductions in budgets due to the economic collapse. All of these conditions are enough to overwhelm, frighten, and discourage advocates from continuing to serve survivors. But, for obvious reasons, their work is more critical than ever.

So programs have had to innovate – in real time, on the ground, without the benefit of advance planning or additional resources, while contemporaneously triaging survivors. Fortunately, DV advocates are some of the heartiest, most creative, compassionate, and responsive people – they have to be to provide the services they do – making them perfectly suited to meet this challenge directly. The priority right now is to get back to basics.

The Basics – food and water, shelter and resources, clothing, sleep, health and safety – everything a survivor needs to be able to recover from domestic violence, stabilize their lives and families, and move forward with self-determination and well-being. As programs cope with the coronavirus crisis in the face of reduced resources and peak demand, they have focused on these essential elements to ensure survivors remain safe and healthy. This means that many programmatic outcomes focused on higher-order goals – such as long-term healing from trauma, improved education and incomes, achieving personal empowerment and fulfillment – have had to be eschewed. These goals may make sense when times are good, resources are plentiful, and routines are more predictable. In the face of crisis, it is common sense to go back to basics.

But focusing on the basics is not only smart during times of scarcity and crisis. In fact, for many survivors, the basics can be ideal. Survivors don’t necessarily access shelter programs with the intent to achieve higher-order functioning, but rather to find safety from violence, a place to lay their head at night without fear, where they can take care of themselves and their families without interference, and support to move forward with their lives on their own terms. And studies show that survivors often may be more likely to successfully achieve safety-related empowerment, housing stability, and recovery from abuse when they have:

  1. Access to services with minimal barriers and bureaucracy;
  2. Advocacy and support in the community untethered to shelter;
  3. Agency to select the supports that are most useful and safe; and,
  4. Flexible financial assistance to maintain housing stability;

In other words, some of the practices being embraced to cope with COVID may be best practices in general. While these elements may look like basics, they are actually the most effective approach to helping survivors in many cases. A closer look at some of these practices illustrates that.

Access to services with minimal barriers and bureaucracy

As the demand for services from survivors has grown in the midst of the pandemic and its attendant stresses, programs have had to shift their response to be more nimble, triaging requests for services on an expedited basis to meet the growing need. This means, in some cases, having to abandon the rigorous screening and eligibility routines that were previously in place and adopt a faster, more low-barrier approach. But low-barrier entry to programs has been demonstrated to be a best practice in both homeless housing and victim-specific housing programs. Results of a study which examined the impact of low-barrier entry and voluntary services policies (Nnawulezi et al., 2018) suggested that these policies provide a strong framework through which staff can engage in empowering and survivor-centered practices

Advocacy and support in the community untethered to shelter

Providing advocacy to survivors around the community without requiring them to meet with advocates in offices or even to face to face is essential under the threat of infection and to comply with government orders to limit exposure. However, a large, randomized controlled trial conducted in the 1990s had established that mobile advocacy leads to improvements in DV survivors’ ability to access community resources (including housing), social support, safety from abuse, and overall quality of life (Bybee & Sullivan, 2002; Sullivan & Bybee, 1999). Building on this earlier work, Niolon and colleagues (2009) longitudinally examined the role of housing stability in preventing revictimization and reducing negative outcomes for DV survivors and their children. That study, which included an examination of mobile advocacy and housing supports over time, found quite positive changes in women’s and children’s lives over 18 months.

Agency to select the supports that are most useful and safe

Being able to provide services to survivors on an individualized basis, responding to their unique context and circumstances, and adapting services to their needs, allows programs to provide a leaner, more expedient response to survivors rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach.

Studies have shown that some program policies that include restrictive rules for residents or limit access to services for survivors who have more complex and compounding concerns (e.g., severe mental health issues, sex workers, criminal histories) are perceived to be oppressive and disempowering (Gengler, 2012; Smyth, Goodman, & Glenn, 2006; VanNatta, 2010). Other studies have found that restrictive housing policies might remove the ability of survivors to make their own decisions and may inadvertently create an environment in which staff engage in practices that disempower rather than empower survivors (Gengler, 2012; Glenn & Goodman, 2015; Moe, 2007).

Flexible financial assistance to maintain housing stability

To support survivors to remain safe and stably housed in the community, flexible financial assistance to overcome crises resulting from abuse, avoid homelessness, and maintain safety is a proven approach that not only enables programs to reduce shelter admissions but support survivors for a fraction of the cost. In one study (Sullivan, C., et al., 2016), 94% of survivors remained stably housed 6 months after receiving funds, with 93% reporting having experienced no repeat violence. That study also showed that the fast, flexible, compassionate, and simple process for obtaining flexible funding resulted in an increase in hopefulness among survivors (Bomsta, H. et al. 2018) that consequently enabled them to mobilize other resources and plans. Findings from a statewide evaluation of programs in California demonstrated that the use of flexible funding can have a profound impact on survivors’ immediate and long-term housing stability, with 58% of survivors using funds to avoid homelessness and 78% of those survivors being able to stay in their own homes (López-Zerón, G et al. 2019).

Providing survivors with services outside the boundaries of a shelter, as many programs are being forced to do during the pandemic, has been found to be effective in helping survivors to achieve housing stability and safety. In fact, in many places, the basics are all there has been. Many communities of color and culturally specific communities who lack access to mainstream resources have successfully employed these strategies for decades.

While making these program adaptations may seem less than ideal and certainly under challenging conditions, programs should seek to adopt these practices for the long term. Whether or not things return to “normal” – and the likelihood is things won’t, at least not entirely – the ability to innovate to best meet survivors’ needs is valuable in any context. Change can be difficult, especially under duress, which is true for programs as well as survivors. But offering the basics, especially the power of healing and hope that safe housing provides, may actually be enough beyond this pandemic.

Peg Hacskaylo is the Founder and CEO of National Alliance for Safe Housing (NASH), where she has overseen multiple innovative programs providing safe housing options for survivors and their families. NASH’s mission is to ensure that survivors of domestic and sexual violence have a full range of safe housing options, through improved access, increased resources, and innovative solutions, ultimately catalyzing a safe housing movement. She holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania, and completed a certificate in Organizational Development from Georgetown University.