Nowhere to Turn: Survivors are Unsafe at Home and Criminalized on the Streets

As domestic violence and housing costs skyrocket, the Supreme Court’s answer to the crisis of homelessness is more cruelty.

Homeless rights activists hold a rally outside of the U.S. Supreme Court on April 22, 2024, during oral arguments in City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson and Smith v. Spizzirri, a dispute over the constitutionality of ordinances that bar people who are homeless from camping on city streets. (Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images)

Last September, a domestic violence program in Vermont took a call from a domestic violence survivor who needed emergency shelter to escape her abuser. But the program didn’t have the funding to provide her emergency shelter. The program shared, “We tried to help her as best we could, but she was sobbing and scared for her safety.”  

The problems plaguing both the program and the survivor are not unique. In fact, the 18th Annual Domestic Violence Counts Report published by the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) found that found that, of survivors’ 13,335 unmet requests for services in just one day in September 2023, 54 percent were for housing or shelter.

Domestic and sexual violence drive survivors into homelessness or into further harm for themselves and their children back at their homes. Black and brown survivors will continue to be the most impacted by racist criminalization and housing inequities.

Every day, survivors flee their homes to escape life-threatening violence. The threats are real: Nationwide, an average of three women are killed each day by a former or current intimate partner.

After they flee, there is nowhere to go. Amidst a nationwide housing crisis, affordable housing is just not available, especially for single women. It’s even harder for survivors who have been economically abused, or who are economically disadvantaged due to gender and racial pay gaps, to find somewhere safe and affordable. Black and brown survivors face racist housing discrimination, including outrageously disproportionate eviction rates

Survivors are left without choices. If they are sleeping outside or in their cars, they are threatened with fines and harassment. Homeless to escape abuse, survivors and their children become more vulnerable to continued abuse and sexual assault while living outside or doubling up with people who take advantage of their situation.

A 45-year-old survivor experiencing homelessness in California summed up many survivors’ experiences: “I’m here now [homeless] because I left the house. I just needed to leave because it was more physical and more violent.”

As survivors navigate a hostile housing landscape while fleeing life-threatening violence, inexplicably, some states and localities are passing laws and ordinances that make it even harder to escape and find housing, like Grants Pass, Ore.

Instead of cooking up laws that punish people for facing abuse, communities and governments should turn to proven, workable strategies that end abuse and homelessness: affordable housing.

Grants Pass passed a law that fines and tickets homeless individuals for sleeping outside. The U.S. Supreme Court took up the case in City of Grants Pass v. Johnson to determine the constitutionality of such laws.

NNEDV joined 75 survivor advocacy and service organizations on an amicus brief to the Supreme Court highlighting how policies like Grants Pass’ harm domestic violence and sexual assault survivors.

Surely, we thought, SCOTUS will see how the decks are already stacked against those who experience homelessness and will see these policies for what they are: cruel, unusual and ineffective.

But these laws are now sanctioned by the highest court in the land.

Criminalizing survivors is costly for survivors, their children and our communities. It is unconscionable. It is absurd.

As the inane cruelty of the SCOTUS ruling sinks in, the affordable housing gap persists, housing stock remains critically low, and demand for domestic and sexual violence services continues to soar.

Communities and states must reject the cruelty agenda and embrace a housing-focused approach. Instead of cooking up laws that punish people for facing abuse, communities and governments should turn to proven, workable strategies that end abuse and homelessness.

The most urgent and effective strategy is affordable housing.

Housing is safety for survivors. Survivors need access to safe, affordable housing, which means communities need to invest in building housing and providing subsidies and resources to help survivors afford housing. Survivors, who have faced untold trauma and fear, need survivor-specific housing programs that respond to ongoing safety concerns and provide a trauma-informed approach to housing them and their children.

A mom from Oregon and her four children are proof that simple solutions and investments make all the difference. She and her kids, all under the age of 6, were forced into homelessness when they fled abuse. Low vacancy rates and high rents meant that there were no apartments available to her, and shelters were full. Over a three-year period, the family struggled with homelessness, finding temporary shelter space when they could, or sleeping in a store basement or parks when there was no shelter available. Despite their rough sleeping conditions, her children regularly attended school. The threat of violence from the abuser was always present. With supportive services and resources, the survivor was able to get into long-term shelter, then gain employment and housing.

Would fines or even jail have helped her? Zero percent chance. 

As our amicus brief outlines, these laws only make it harder for survivors to actually find housing and make them vulnerable to arrests, fines and tickets after being victimized by an abuser. When survivors inevitably cannot pay the initial fines imposed, they face additional fines and charges, leading to a criminal history and ongoing involvement with the criminal legal system. Now saddled with criminal records and mounting fees, survivors’ chances of finding safe, affordable housing disappear as landlords screen them out. Of course, these policies disproportionately impact Black and brown survivors who already face racial discrimination and bias in housing.

Leveling fines and fees against survivors when communities and governments routinely fail to provide adequate shelter and housing is cruel. State and local governments that dedicate resources to safe, affordable housing and supportive services for survivors help to end violence and create thriving communities.

Now, it’s up to state and local governments to reject the Supreme Court’s cruelty and invest in proven strategies that help end abuse and homelessness, such as broad investments in affordable housing and targeted investments in survivor-specific housing programs. Survivors can’t wait any longer for the safe, affordable housing they need.

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Stephanie Love-Patterson is the president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence.