This article is part of a series of stories from women who’ve escaped domestic violence at Springs Rescue Mission. While handled gently, the content is heavier than many of our previous blogs and may not be suitable for all readers.
Too often, the conditions homeless people endure and the circumstances that lead them there are minimized or ignored. For some, being homeless was preceded by job loss, a chronic medical condition, or being afflicted by an array of mental health disorders.
For some people like me, they can end up homeless trying to escape abuse.
In my situation, ongoing financial abuse caused me to experience homelessness with my abuser (my now-ex-boyfriend) after our fourth eviction. The financial abuse started out rather insignificantly. He had moved from another state and was looking for work in a field where there wasn’t much opportunity. Early in our relationship, I was comfortable with leaving smaller amounts of cash in case he needed something during the day while I was at work. That all changed quickly.
Over time, the financial abuse escalated. He started demanding money, questioning my spending, and asking me to pay a bill or two late.
He began running up bills, forbade me to pay others, and started confiscating paychecks. When I tried to refuse, he would physically force me to submit to his will. By May of 2009, our landlord evicted us from the apartment; utility shutoffs had already begun. Additionally, I lost my life insurance because he would not allow me to make the payments.
We were in and out of apartments rapidly. In between apartments, we lived in the car for months at a time.
Things got so bad that I sat next to a nearby canal, imagining myself being enveloped by the murky water and escaping the nightmare that had become my life.
Some nights we’d park overnight at a truck stop and sleep. I felt like a caged animal, trapped in steel and glass with my abuser. Even though we parked under a light, there were always strangers coming and going. I never felt safe. Any time I needed to go to the restroom, he would follow me in and wait. He wouldn’t even let me take a shower in privacy. He watched my every move.
I worried I’d lose my car because it had been uninsured so long that the registration was suspended. We had nowhere else to go, and the thought of losing that on top of everything else was a constant strain. I started to feel ashamed of the way I was living and withdrew as much as I could. My co-workers had no idea of my circumstances, and it was several years after I left my abuser before I let any of them know.
Despite being approved for a new apartment, the abuse continued to get worse. In total, we were evicted four times and were about to receive our fifth when I left. I lost everything I owned – all the furniture and everything in the apartment was mine. The car had been impounded the week before I left after he was pulled over for running a stop sign.
When I left the morning of December 14, 2012, I only had the clothes on my back and what was in my handbag. I had managed to sneak my debit card out of his wallet when he was on the phone, but he had already taken the money the night before. The financial damages of that relationship were crushing; in total, I was left with about $200,000 in losses.
The longer I volunteer as an advocate with Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence, the more I’m aware of how fortunate I was when I left my abuser despite the oppressive level of financial damage I sustained. While my finances were destroyed, I had someone who could take me in. This one thing is all that prevented me from being homeless a second time.
Just as domestic violence advocates in the 1970s paved the way for those working in the field today by lifting their voices against abuse, we need to continue to do the same in the present to shed light on experiences that often remain hidden in the darkness. Survivors of domestic violence must continue to break their silence on issues such as homelessness and financial abuse to empower themselves and others to take steps toward independence and freedom.
Each year, the National Network to End Domestic Violence [NNEDV] conducts its Domestic Violence Counts survey. In 2017, participating national domestic violence organizations were contacted by 72,245 victims, with emergency sheltering requests present in 77% of requests. Approximately 65% of the petitions for sheltering went unmet. This translates to 7,416 cases where victims were not able to find emergency shelter and had to remain with their abuser or resort to living on the streets to escape.
In the 2017 NNEDV survey, organizations noted that over 1,000 positions organizational staff were either cut or not filled. Because 62% of these positions were service providers who specialized in sheltering and legal advocacy, many hotline calls and service inquiries went unassisted. How many of these victims ultimately faced the impossible choice of returning to their abuser or becoming homeless to avoid going back?