The Wilder Research Center found in 2015 that domestic violence is one of the five leading causes of homelessness in the state. Local women's shelters report that anywhere from 50%-95% of the women they serve are leaving a violent relationship. (Eirc Ward/Unsplash)

According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a home comprises the first two foundational levels of what a human needs in life: it can be seen in the “shelter” portion of the physiological level as well as the “personal security” and “property” pieces of safety needs.

Having stable housing is dependent on economic security, linking that security to safety of individuals and families. But, everyday across the state men, women and children are stuck in an endless loop of unsafe and even violent living situations.

According to Violence Free Minnesota, relationship violence is a leading cause of homelessness for women and their children. When trying to leave an abusive situation, one of the greatest challenges and barriers a victim can face is accessing safe, affordable housing. This leads to victims often having to choose between staying in an unsafe home or having no home at all.

Local resources for women and children experiencing homelessness report that domestic violence is often closely correlated with the experience of those they serve. Ruth’s House of Hope in Faribault reports roughly 50% of the women they house are fleeing domestic violence, and Rachel’s Light in Steele County reports the number of women they assist who have been experiencing violence at home is closer to 95%.

“I wasn’t fully aware of how bad it really was,” said Amanda Starks, executive director of Rachel’s Light, of when she first stepped into her current role in 2019. “It was eye-opening for me, but a common theme in life is what you don’t see you don’t know, and I think that’s often true for people not knowing the extent of how common domestic violence has become.”

Rachel's Light primarily serves the area of Steele and Waseca counties, but works with women and children in need from all over southern Minnesota.

According to data collected by the Homeless Management Information System, between Jan. 1, 2005 and Sept. 4, 2019, 46,961 individuals who experienced homelessness in Minnesota also experienced domestic violence.

The Wilder Research Center in 2015 found that domestic violence is one of the five leading causes of homelessness in the state. In addition, while the root of domestic violence is power and control, economic stress resulting from chronic unemployment/underemployment, foreclosures, evictions and bankruptcy can exacerbate abuse. One of the top needs of survivors continues to be safe, affordable housing, along with the economic resources to maintain safety.

Why victims stay

Starks said there are two common trends she sees when it comes to victims feeling “stuck” with a physically abusive partner as it relates to housing: the partner is the sole provider and the mental health component outweighs the ongoing abuse.

“Significant trauma like domestic violence is really hard to cope with and can lead to a domino effect of someone believing, ‘If I can’t deal with these things, how do I take care of myself and have housing?’” Starks said. “And when your partner is the sole provider it’s hard to leave because you already have a comfortable home, maybe your kids are being taken care of, you have a car … it's hard to leave when you have no way to take care of yourself.”

What Starks is describing is closely linked to Stockholm syndrome, which medical professionals define as victims having positive feelings toward an abuser or captor. While some victims may not necessarily have “positive” feelings toward their abusers, they can feel a sense of loyalty because of what they provide. Starks said this loyalty can put victims in an increasingly dangerous situation, and that she has seen women come to her with injuries ranging from emotional abuse to traumatic brain injuries.

Sandy Varley, the outreach and communications coordinator for Ruth’s House, said that victims also often feel hopeless and believe they have no support system. That is why Ruth’s House ensures each woman in their program is assigned a caseworker to help with whatever obstacles they come across.

“The first couple meetings the caseworker has with a new client is basically to make them feel comfortable at the shelter — for some women it’s going to take month before they open up and tell their story,” Varley said. “One of the greatest award is when these women say, ‘I really feel you support me and believe in me (and) … I’ve never had that before.’”

Starks said she has seen similar scenarios at Rachel’s Light, adding that the toxic cycle of abuse is that much harder to break when it's all an individual is accustomed to.

“Feeling loved and feeling you belong is so abnormal when you haven’t felt that way before,” Starks said. “Some people really resist it when it’s something brand new to them, and I think that’s why we hear that it takes 10-12 times for a woman to leave their abusive partner before they actually do. That’s their normal, and we have to treat it like an addiction.”

Demand is on the rise

Ruth’s House can host up to nine families — or 27 individuals — at a time, while Rachel’s Light has the capacity to take up to 11. Both cater solely to women and children, and both have experienced long waiting lists since opening — Rachel’s Light in 2019 and Ruth’s House in 2004.

Both facilities also see the need for their services continuing to increase.

“The need is greater than ever,” Varley said, adding that over the past summer she saw an alarming uptick in calls and foot traffic at Ruth’s House. “We have had women dropped off at our doorstep, we get roughly seven applications a week, and now we have been getting calls from area hospitals telling us that they are discharging a woman who will be homeless — that is not something we’re accustomed to and we have never had that before.”

While both shelters are heavily supported by their respective communities, Starks said there is absolutely a need for more options in affordable, safe housing. While emergency shelters are vital and serve a specific purpose for victims in a time of extreme crisis, advocates with Violence Free Minnesota say that in order to end violence in the state, there needs to be a serious investment by communities and governments in a full range of housing needs and housing options.

“When a victim wants to stay hidden and start a new life, they can’t really pick and choose, and sometimes that can lead to even more trauma,” Starks said. “Going into a shelter and not feeling comfortable or bouncing around from home to home in a constant state of fear, that is not sustainable.”

Affordable housing and providing different options in that category is important for all communities regardless of domestic violence, Starks said, and communities need to also focus investing on mental health services, too. If people cannot address the underlying mental health issues that frequently come with the trauma of violence and/or homelessness, Starks said they will to continue to struggle. Absent that, Starks said, they will never be successful in making victims feel safe.

“These women want to thrive,” she added. “But first they have to survive.”

Reach Associate Editor Annie Granlund at 507-444-2378 or follow her on Twitter @AnnieGranlund. ©Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota.

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