What’s the Leading Cause of Homelessness for Oregon Women?

People too often feel trapped between an abuser and the streets.

The answer, according to the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence, is domestic violence.

Advocates say it can be the trickiest social malady to remedy—among housed or homeless populations. Part of the reason, they say, is few victims can speak the truth when their abuser is present. Another is that “abusers use that tactic of ‘It’s me and you against the world,'” says Jaidra Hennessey, community-based services supervisor at the YWCA.

The result? People too often feel trapped between an abuser and the streets.

Jessica. (Sofie Murray)

When her boyfriend threatened her, says Jessica, a domestic violence victim who became homeless due to abuse, she couldn’t find help.

Like the time she ran “shaking and panicking” from her boyfriend’s fits of rage and physical abuse of their dog and called 911 more than once, but her cellphone’s calls didn’t go through.

Or the time when, pregnant and afraid, she spoke to her pastor, who told her, “God made him the way he is, and it’s not his fault.”

“There was no capacity,” she recalls. “The shelters I did call, there was no place for me. And they kept saying, ‘In a month, in a month, in a month.'”

So Jessica moved back in with her boyfriend, as many victims do.

The need for domestic violence shelters continues to outstrip capacity. (Some lifelines do exist in Portland: Human Solutions Family Center, which serves families and women in their final trimester of pregnancy, became a year-round shelter in February 2016, with a policy of turning no one away.)

Last year’s survey of statewide domestic violence programs by the coalition found 192 “unmet requests” for services on the day of the count. Eighty-six percent of those requests in Oregon were for housing—much higher than the same statistic for the U.S., which measured at 66 percent.

Advocates say DV victims are also among the most vulnerable people on the street, at the mercy of all kinds of bad luck and menaces.

Homelessness can even make intimate partner violence seem the safest option, says Eve, who estimates she’s been with 10 abusive partners since age 16. (WW is withholding the identities of Jessica and Eve.)

Eve, who lived in her car, says she grew accustomed to being abused by partners. “It was normal,” she says. “That’s all I knew.” (Sofie Murray)

“If you’re homeless right now, it’s probably safer to be with one abuser, because then he’s going to protect you from other abusers,” she says. “Unless you can get into a shelter. If you’re a woman out here and you’re by yourself and you’re in the streets, it’s not safe, dude. It’s better to know what’s coming than to not know.”

Before her incarceration for DUII and six months’ inpatient treatment, Eve couch-surfed and lived in her car but never went to a shelter, she says, “because I felt like I was ‘too good.'”

She says the lives of DV survivors are especially precarious because of repeated patterns of violence. “You’re not going to amount to shit,” said one man who met her at the strip joint where she worked and later abused her, “because look where I met you.”

“The system is set up against you,” she adds. “Even if you get away from your abuser, you’re treated worse sometimes by the people that are supposed to help you. They say, ‘Why didn’t you just leave? Why did you jeopardize your kids?’ They don’t understand what it’s like.”

Even a seemingly unrelated event—Oregon’s wildfires, for example, or other natural disasters like hurricanes—can add to the chaos for someone on the run from an abusive partner.

“The wildfires that have happened this summer are putting additional stress on an already overburdened DV shelter system,” says Keri Moran-Kuhn, associate director of the coalition, which represents 49 of the state’s 56 domestic violence organizations.

Domestic violence and wildfires might seem only tangentially related, but Kuhn notes the wildfires have created additional scarcity and made it hard for rural staff to reach their offices.

In recent years, advocates note, new laws have been passed to help victims of domestic violence, but some landlords don’t know about—or respect—those laws. One of the most important, says the YWCA’s Hennessey, is a new state law that allows survivors to break their lease in 14 days with a court order.

“I’ve had a number of landlords say that a 14-day lease break for survivors of DV is not something that can be utilized,” Hennessey says. “Obviously it can, because it’s part of the revised statutes in Oregon. I’m not asking for a favor.”

Another law passed locally in recent years protects survivors by making it illegal for landlords to charge survivors for damages to an apartment, or try to “steer” a victim toward a certain apartment. But Hennessey says that still happens.

“Laws change pretty quickly, and there’s been a number of significant changes in the last three years, both at the state and local level,” she says.

When the Gateway Center for Domestic Violence Services opened in 2012, it soon became a hub for the metro area, featuring walk-in access, navigators, security and a video conference link to Multnomah County Circuit Court, which now issues more restraining orders each year than the downtown courthouse.

“This one was a home run, I think,” says City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who pushed for the center.

Gateway’s executive director, Martha Strawn Morris, says it will see between 2,000 and 2,200 survivors this year alone. “Between 17 and 20 percent will identify as wanting a change in their housing situation,” she says — 430 in all.

For Eve and Jessica, it’s possible such services saved their lives.

Eve turned to alcohol as a result of physical abuse, including stitches, bruises, black eyes and “trouble walking.” After a DUII, Eve spent six months of inpatient rehab at LifeWorks NW’s Project Network, and three months at a Salvation Army shelter.

Having a safe, reliable place to live helped Eve start her life over. She’s off probation and says she’s completed her college degree. “I obtained employment, I was able to stabilize myself,” she says. “I’ve hit the ground running.”