The stereotypical image of homelessness is often a disheveled man, wrapped in his meager belongings, drunk or on his way. Unfortunately, this image is misleading. These unsheltered, chronically homeless individuals who find themselves in this condition due to disabilities such as physical, serious mental illness and/or substance use disorder, represent less than one-fifth of the total national homeless population. And, while almost half of all homeless persons are white, African Americans and American Indians/Alaska Natives are overrepresented compared to their numbers in the overall population.
HUD’s Annual Point-in-Time Count, the only nationwide survey of homeless people, found more than 550,000 people living homeless in 2018, one-third of whom were families with children. Thirty percent couldn’t find shelter for lack of resources. Although homelessness has overall decreased by 15 percent since 2007, with a 23 percent decrease in homeless families, this still represents more than 180,000 adults and children living without a secure roof over their heads. Washington’s approximately 22,000 homeless persons can primarily be found across 10 or more counties, with the majority living in urban centers. Using additional data sources, our chronically homeless community represents approximately 6 percent of the total, significantly less than the national average. More than 1,000 households are affected, of which 25 percent include children. Family conflict represents the primary reason for unsheltered homelessness; fleeing domestic violence and family conflict represent two of the primary reasons overall for our community members living homeless.
Family violence and trauma is an ugly blight and an all-too-common reality of our Spokane community. As recently reported, Spokane County has the highest rate of domestic violence in Washington, nearly twice that of the state as a whole. An estimated 3,900 domestic violence victims are identified annually, representing a quarter of all criminal cases. Two thousand children were either witnesses or victims of domestic violence in Spokane County between 2016 and 2017. “End the Violence,” a documentary that opens an unsettling window into this dark side of Spokane, provided Nichole, a domestic-abuse victim, an opportunity to courageously tell her story. She and her two boys lived daily with violence and suffered in silence, too scared and ashamed to speak their truth.
Survivors of violence in the home bear more than just their physical injuries. Below the surface, deeply imbedded in their psyches, are many other atrocities: threats of children used as collateral, economic abuse, and shaming about everything from appearance to their personality. These wounds are deep and further distress the victims. They are often the families that double-up with another family, hoping to maintain some sort of home within another’s. Children experiencing both domestic violence and homelessness deal with many Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) including the violence, both physical and emotional, and abandonment. It was recently reported that an estimated 3,300 homeless students live in Spokane County, of whom 40 percent are youth of color. Almost half of these homeless are children grades K-5. Their success, both academically and in life, is challenged by this instability.
What can be done? First and foremost, believe the survivors. This can be the most empowering moment, when someone tells their story and they are believed. Law enforcement has come a long way in understanding the victimization that occurs in a domestic violence situation, but taking on the prosecution of these cases is paramount; the survivor cannot do this on their own. Supporting policies that provide resources to these families is also critical. In the past few years, we have recognized that shelters and transitional housing for survivors and their families are crucial, but funding has not followed. In fact, it has been reduced. Fortunately, many agencies have banded together to provide services, including a current effort in Spokane by Transitions, Lutheran Community Services NW and the YWCA to provide best-practice transitional housing. This gives families a chance to stabilize, find support and deal with their trauma as they progress on the road to independence. Additionally, organizations such as Priority Spokane, Spokane Regional Health District, and Spokane Regional Domestic Violence Coalition have prioritized addressing family violence and trauma.
While these organizations can bring their resources to bear, collective action by everyone is the only way we’ll be able to improve the lives of domestic violence victims. By taking notice, becoming aware of the seriousness of domestic violence and its impact on our community’s resources, and learning how we as individuals can make a difference, we can positively affect the health and well-being of not only the victims, but of our entire community.
Reverend Edie Rice-Sauer is the executive director of Transitions. Bob Lutz is the health officer for Spokane County at the Spokane Regional Health District.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.