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Sojourner House is getting into the housing business in Rhode Island

Places for people fleeing domestic and sexual violence are lacking, so the nonprofit aims to buy properties to help those in shelters have real homes

Emma, a survivor of domestic abuse, looked out a window at the Sojourner House office. Seven years ago, Sojourner House helped her escape her abusive family. Now she wants to help the organization help others.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Finding housing for survivors of abuse was a struggle before the pandemic hit.

There was already so much demand that Sojourner House had stopped keeping a waiting list for the 126 apartments it leases for people who’ve escaped domestic violence, sexual abuse, or trafficking.

Then, COVID-19 arrived in March of last year, and the cracks in the housing system became chasms.

Vanessa Volz, executive director of Sojourner House, said the nonprofit got more desperate calls from people seeking help escaping to a safe place — and those who had places to live were struggling to keep them. In just a year, Sojourner House went from spending $25,000 in rental assistance to $365,000, to help 249 families who risked losing their homes.

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“A lot of our clients are low-income, and those that did have jobs had their hours reduced or lost their jobs altogether,” Volz said. “And so, they started coming to us, saying, ‘I’m going to lose my apartment.’ And some were individuals we had helped get safely housed . . . And I remember sitting with our housing team and we were like, we’re going to have so many clients have to go back to a shelter, what can we do? We have to keep them safe.”

Sojourner House executive director Vanessa Volz, left, with Emma, a survivor of domestic violence who connected with the organization for help years ago.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The agency has three emergency shelters, with 23 beds, intended to help people in the immediacy of leaving an abusive situation. They can end up staying for months, because there is nowhere else for them to go, Volz said.

“They don’t necessarily need to be in a shelter, but they have nowhere else to go,” Volz said. “So it creates a problem on many levels because there are only so many shelter beds. But if you have someone coming into the shelter and staying for three, four, or five months, that means other people can’t come into the shelter that are in dangerous situations.”

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While the lack of affordable housing isn’t new, Sojourner House plans to do something different than other social service agencies. The agency is seeking to buy its own properties for long-term homes for victims, by applying for funds in the American Rescue Plan and US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“There’s going to be a lot of money available for affordable housing development, and I really think we’re going to be well positioned to be competitive for some of those funds,” Volz said. “We know that affordable housing is more successful with supportive services, so I think we’re really well positioned to lead in this way.”

The board of directors recently approved of Sojourner House becoming a full-scale housing agency and developer, and have all of its services integrated. “I think there’s an understanding across the board that we need more affordable housing and we need more units. It’s an inventory issue and we’ve ignored it too long,” said Volz, who is also president of the board of the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness.

Sojourner House spends about half of its budget on various housing programs, including rental assistance and rapid rehousing, because it’s critical for survivors to have safe, permanent homes to help them rebuild their lives, she said.

“The majority of the calls that we get are from people that have been in an abusive situation and can’t find permanent housing. And so, they’re sleeping on someone’s couch or they’re staying with an abuser or they’re stressing out a family member because they’ve overstayed their welcome or they’re living in a car,” said Volz. “We saw a lot of that during the pandemic. It’s not necessarily like they have nowhere to go tonight, but it’s more, their current situation is not sustainable for the long term.”

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And then, the long-term recovery begins.

Emma A.A. has lived it. Seven years ago, she was ready to die to escape her abusive father and brothers, and their control over her in their home country in the Middle East. Then, during a family trip to Boston, Emma said, she told a favorite aunt why she no longer wanted to live, and the aunt notified police.

That intervention probably saved her life, Emma says now. She was taken to a hospital and then transferred to a safe house in Rhode Island, and connected with Sojourner House to help her recover. They got her into counseling, set her up with transitional housing, job training, and an immigration lawyer to help her seek asylum.

“I started from the bottom, and I didn’t have anything but the clothes on my shoulder,” she said. “If it wasn’t for Sojourner House, I don’t know what would happen to me. It was a long journey and sometimes, I have to stop, turn around, and look back to see how far I’ve come.”

She’s now 35 and a real estate agent with Keller Williams in Rhode Island. She hopes to help Sojourner House find permanent housing for other survivors like her, because she knows how important it is to have a safe place.

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“It wasn’t just necessary for me to put my foot on the ground, to get a job, and find a place to live. It was the space to process the emotions I didn’t know were there, and the support system to have phone calls with someone who is there,” Emma said. “Having permanent housing is going to take all this pain, all this hurting out, and give people a safe space.”


Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her @AmandaMilkovits.