Changes for homeless domestic violence survivors are "baby steps," advocates say

Photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office

While advocates and nonprofit leaders welcomed news on Tuesday that the New York City Human Resources Administration plans to make policy adjustments in regards to its services for homeless victims of domestic violence, many said much work remains to be done, with one advocate describing the proposed shifts as mere “baby steps” in the right direction.


Earlier this week, an HRA spokesperson told New York Nonprofit Media that the agency plans to resume reporting the number of victims of domestic violence in New York City shelters to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development after three years of electing not to do so. Advocates characterize the count as an important tool for policymakers as they craft services and secure funding for domestic violence survivors.


The agency’s spokesperson also said that HRA will move to provide childcare during sensitive intake interviews in an effort to protect children from experiencing trauma as a result of hearing parents recount specific details of domestic violence. Both policy adjustments come amid a comprehensive 90-day review of the city’s homeless services ordered last month by Mayor Bill de Blasio.


The shifts, which followed inquiries by NYN Media, garnered praise from many corners of the nonprofit community.


"These changes will help us more accurately assess the extent to which domestic violence contributes to the homelessness crisis in New York City, and will minimize the trauma children experience by eliminating unnecessary and misguided protocols,” said Christine Quinn, executive director of Win, one of the city’s largest providers of services for homeless women and children. “Additional steps are needed, however, to ensure our system is responsive to the needs of homeless families that have survived domestic violence."


Carol Corden, executive director of New Destiny Housing, an organization that works to house victims of domestic violence throughout New York City, stressed the importance of an accurate count of domestic violence survivors in the shelter system given the magnitude of the population.


“Before the city stopped doing the count, domestic violence survivors were the third highest subpopulation in homeless shelters,” Corden said. “We are happy that they are in fact going to do what should have been done all along.”


Corden also cautioned leaders against allowing domestic violence survivors to “fall off the radar” and called on de Blasio to appoint a representative from a domestic violence organization to his recently formed supportive housing task force, a “brain trust” that will guide the implementation of his administration’s $2.6 billion, 15,000-unit plan.


“We were struck that the supportive housing task force did not have a representative from a domestic violence organization on it,” Corden said. “Given that domestic violence victims are one of the most impacted groups, it’s interesting that there is no representative for this population. That’s something that we’d really like to see.”


Mary Brosnahan, president and CEO of Coalition for the Homeless, agreed that domestic violence organizations should be offered a seat at the table during supportive housing discussions, saying, “I can’t imagine there would be any pushback from the (de Blasio) administration on including a domestic violence organization on the task force.”  


Brosnahan also agreed that supportive housing should be viewed as the overarching solution for homeless survivors of domestic violence, and implored the mayor and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to codify a new NY/NY agreement on funding for additional units. While three such agreements have been struck between past mayors and governors, the potential for current collaboration has fallen by the wayside during a monthslong feud between Cuomo and de Blasio.


While advocates highlighted the need for more supportive units, they also stressed the importance of ground-level shifts during the intake process that could impact how domestic violence survivors access services at city-run shelters.


“You’re counting on people to self-disclose so that you can provide services, and there’s a lot of denial and a lot of shame connected with domestic violence,” said Catherine Trapani, director of New Destiny Housing’s HousingLink program. “There are always people who won’t understand why certain questions are being asked. We need to make sure that we’re not dispassionate when we’re talking to potential victims.”


Brosnahan concurred, saying that the city Department of Homeless Services should make sure that its staff is properly trained to prevent victims from falling through the cracks when they enter the system.


“The city needs to replace or retrain what I call ‘DHS 1.0 people’ who still have a very confrontational approach during intake interviews,” Brosnahan said. “People are asking things like, ‘Well, why don’t you have a police report on this incident?’ I don’t know about you, but I would have reached my breaking point by then.”


Advocates also said that the de Blasio administration should use its current review of homeless services in the city to address problems in the way that domestic violence survivors currently navigate through a labyrinth of city agencies. Trapani cited the New York City Housing Authority's move earlier this year to give victims of domestic violence the same priority as homeless families and singles – who had been given emergency priority over domestic violence survivors – as an important step.


“We need to ensure that there is equitable access for survivors, in all of the city agencies, including HRA, HPD, and NYCHA,” Trapani said. “When NYCHA has priority placement, we want to see the continued inclusion of domestic violence victims. NYCHA and HRA only belatedly came together for a one-time deal, in an effort to appease community outcry over the lack of access for domestic violence survivors. But that deal was never enshrined in any plan. Let’s be proactive, not reactive. Let’s be inclusive from the start.”


Others have hypothesized that absorbing DHS into HRA could help promote organizational cohesion.


“The funding for DHS comes from HRA. Where the dollars are, that’s where the operation should be,” said Ralph da Costa Nunez, president of the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness. “It was a mistake to break DHS off in the first place. Right now you have duplication of all sorts of administration that make it so much more inefficient.”


Nunez added that city government is at a unique crossroads and could seize on its systemic review to enact lasting change for domestic violence survivors.


“There are so many families who have dealt with domestic abuse peppered throughout the shelter system,” Nunez said. “This is a real opportunity to deal with it.”

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