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Domestic Violence Victims In Vermont Face Housing Shortage, Homelessness

Peter Hirschfeld
Auburn Watersong and Gilan Merwanji, both of whom work at the Vermont Network Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, told members the Child Poverty Council Thursday that victims are struggling to find appropriate housing after fleeing abusive situations.

For victims of domestic violence, fleeing home is often the only way to ensure the safety of themselves and their children. But advocates say a shortage of affordable housing has created a homelessness crisis for these vulnerable families, and they'll soon ask lawmakers for the money they say is needed to solve the problem.

On any given night, about 1,500 people in Vermont are homeless. According to state data, nearly 20 percent of them are victims of domestic violence. 

"Victims in Vermont who stay in shelter often struggle to find local available housing, and if they do they often struggle to secure the resources necessary to relocate," says Gilan Merwanji, the economic justice and policy coordinator at the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence

Thursday, Merwanji told members of the Vermont Child Poverty Council that shelters provide a temporary safe haven for women fleeing abusive situations. But he says low wages, high rental costs and low vacancy rates are making it increasingly difficult for victims to find longer-term accommodations.

Auburn Watersong, associate director of public policy at the Vermont Network, says victims' inability to find safe and affordable housing is creating capacity issues at the state's nine domestic violence shelters.

"Our emergency shelters were really only originally conceived to be six-week shelters, but they're three months and way beyond now, because these families can't find places to go that really meet everybody's needs, including the children's needs," Watersong says.

Merwanji says lack of housing exacerbates the social and economic challenges already faced by women trying to escape their abusers.

"Sometimes there's couch surfing taking place," Merwanji says. "They have to move from county to county, some people are moving from state to state. I've seen that happening, and so we can see the disruption in their day to day lives of the children and the mother."

Watersong says that the disruption often leads women back into the domestic situations they'd previously tried to get out of.

"I will tell you this: economics are one of the driving forces in why victims return to their abusers," Watersong said to the Child Poverty Council. "So if you can think of ways to get money, that would be really helpful as a Legislature."

"If you don't have secure, safe housing, any attempts to improve your health in other ways, substance a treatment, anything, it's not going to go well for you if you don't have a safe place to stay." - Michelle Fay, associate director of Voices for Vermont's Children

Finding more money for affordable housing is a perennial issue for lawmakers in Montpelier. But advocates are hoping to generate momentum for a piece of legislation that would add a $2-per-night surcharge on all hotel and motel stays. The proposal would raise about $12 million a year, and advocates say even a portion of that money could go a long way toward solving some of Vermont's housing issues.

Michelle Fay, associate director of Voices for Vermont's Children, says the quality of a family's domestic environment is among the most determinative factors in its ability climb out of poverty and overcome other hardships. 

"If you don't have secure, safe housing, any attempts to improve your health in other ways, substance abuse treatment, anything, it's not going to go well for you if you don't have a safe place to stay," Fay says. 

Advocates for poor and vulnerable Vermonters will meet early next year to try to galvanize support for their legislative agenda.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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