PROVIDENCE — Sojourner House, a domestic and sexual violence nonprofit, will receive $850,000 in federal funding to help provide safe housing for victims of abuse in Rhode Island.
Leaders at Sojourner House, like many other nonprofits helping at-risk populations navigate the state’s housing crisis, shared plans with the Globe in May 2021 that showed the nonprofit planned to buy its own properties for long-term homes for victims. The agency now sub-leases apartments to approximately 150 households statewide.
Using these new funds, announced Monday by U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Rhode Island Secretary of Housing Josh Saal, Sojourner House will be able to purchase an additional building that will be rehabilitated and eventually leased to families who have experienced abuse.
Vanessa Volz, the executive director of Sojourner House, told a Globe reporter the agency has not yet identified a building, but is looking to find a multi-family home with three to six units.
“Due to our work, we are too familiar with the fact that safe, secure housing is often a barrier for a victim to flee from an abusive situation,” said Volz. “The more stable, permanent housing options we can provide for families to rebuild their lives, the more successful we can become in breaking the cycle of abuse that often forces victims to return to an abusive situation.”
A portion of the funding will also allow Sojourner House to provide supportive services to its clients who lease these confidential apartments, such as individual case management, clinical counseling, immigration advocacy, and youth programming, among other services.
In a previous interview with the Globe, Volz that even before the pandemic, Sojourner House did not have the capacity in its shelters and units to keep up with demand. Since the start of the pandemic, calls to the organization’s 24/7 hotline increased by more than 30 percent. From June 2020 to June 2021, Sojourner House helped more than 250 households in its rental assistance program, which equated to approximately $550,000.
“And we still didn’t meet the demand... It has been a long haul,” Volz said at the time.
Sojourner House isn’t the only agency facing issues related to housing.
In fact, a report published in March of this year by the National Network to End Domestic Violence found that more than 90 percent of domestic violence victims could not access housing or emergency shelter in 2021. In a single day last fall, approximately 61 victims of domestic violence requested supportive services in Rhode Island, from housing to transportation, that assistance programs could not provide because of a lack of resources. But 93 percent of these unmet services were for housing and emergency shelter in particular. This is compared to a single day in 2020, where 58 percent of those unmet needs among victims were for housing or emergency shelter, according to the report.
For those victims of abuse who are not able to access safe housing, the consequences can be “dire,” including continued exposure to “life-threatening violence or homelessness,” said Volz. In 2021 alone, Sojourner House provided more than 12,200 bed nights in transitional housing units and more than 22,900 bed nights in permanent supportive housing units, which were increases over previous years.
Saal said domestic violence and abuse are one of the leading causes of homelessness. Because of Rhode Island’s housing crisis, which is lacking thousands of units for families across all income levels, babies have been born in shelters and the length of emergency shelter stays increased by more than 220 percent during the pandemic.
“Survivors and advocates have made it clear that access to safe housing saves lives in a moment of crisis,” said Whitehouse. “Sojourner House provides many Rhode Island victims and families with shelter and helps them reclaim their lives from abuse.”
The new federal dollars to Sojourner House were appropriated through the VOCA Fix to Sustain the Crime Victims Fund Act of 2021 (also known as the VOCA Fix), which Whitehouse was an original cosponsor of and President Biden signed in July 2021. The law redirects monetary penalties from federal deferred prosecution and non-prosecution agreements into the Crime Victims Fund. This fix authorized an estimated additional $4 to $7 billion in non-taxpayer money for victim compensation and assistance programs in Rhode Island and across the United States, said Whitehouse.
The news comes just two months after Sojourner House purchased a $975,000 multi-unit building on Westminster Street in Providence’s West End in June to both add to the nonprofit’s housing portfolio for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking and to create office space for the agency’s housing team.