It has been well documented that the pandemic — and its ensuing and persistent economic impacts — have had a devastating impact on low-income communities and particularly on communities of color. Loss of income, the reduced availability of affordable child care, and the looming threat of eviction have poked more holes in an already fragile safety net for our most vulnerable populations, especially for those experiencing domestic violence. This is particularly the case among survivors who are women of color, immigrants, and low income wage earners who cannot sever ties with their abuser without an alternative source of economic support.
According to the Institute of Women’s Policy Research’s “The Status of Black Women in the United States,” more than 40 percent of Black women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. Sadly, for many of the survivors within Brookview House’s reach today, the abuse they face at home is often toward the bottom of their list of worries. Their primary concerns are driven by the health and wellbeing of their children, hunger and food insecurity, lack of affordable housing, and the end of the moratorium on evictions.
When our domestic violence specialists ask about their health, we often learn there is no health insurance, no primary care physician, or that their last visit to a doctor’s office was years ago. When asked about basic needs, many have said they struggle to maintain their housing, and some are facing evictions. Others are trying to keep their utilities on. Still more are having difficulty providing food for themselves and their children.
Amid such struggles, how do we as providers best assist survivors in planning for futures free of violence? We must begin by addressing the root causes and recognizing the interconnectedness of homelessness, racism, and poverty. Programs and services should be made available that enable survivors to earn a living wage and maintain safe, permanent affordable housing through education, counseling, and other supportive measures.
However, providers must also be willing to put aside our “one size fits all” models of service delivery, particularly where Black and brown survivors are concerned. We must consider that these survivors have a different set of cultural norms and a long history of suffering at the hands of various systems, including the criminal legal system. Providers have to address the needs of survivors in the order they wish to proceed. We have to recognize and respect that survivors know what’s best for their own lives, and our role is to support as needed. Having their wishes overridden becomes another obstacle these survivors face.
At Brookview, we have seen firsthand that violence in the home is one of the biggest driving forces behind family homelessness, but for low-income survivors and survivors of color, it is an even more complicated issue, with many critical puzzle pieces.
How do we do this? It begins by approaching intimate partner violence as a social justice as well as a public health issue for Black women. In 2020, The Massachusetts Women of Color Network issued a report, “Keeping Black Women Alive,” with the following recommendations:
1. Shift away from policing. Engage in direct conversations with the Black community by connecting with faith-based leaders, Black women-led organizations, and Black transgender women, all of whom have longstanding relationships with their communities.
2. Destroy stereotypes. Black women are often misconceived as “strong.” Identify the difference between strength and fear, between assessment and engagement. Require antiracism training for teams engaging with survivors. See Black women as a sum of their whole parts instead of simply their incidence of intimate partner violence.
3. Fund research for Black women. Study alternatives to carceral feminism to begin changing the narrative for Black women and Black transgender women. Support and fund the leadership of Black women-led organizations with deep roots in the Black community.
It’s imperative that we meet survivors where they are at, taking into account the myriad of forces behind their decisions, and doing whatever is necessary to keep them not only safe, but housed, fed, and moving toward a better life for themselves and their children.
Deborah Collins-Gousby is the chief operating officer of Brookview House, cochair of the Leadership Council of the Massachusetts Women of Color Network, and the president of the board of directors for Jane Doe Inc.