Serving Survivors, Ending Family Homelessness: Reflections on How Far We’ve Come and the Road Ahead

January 29, 2018

The Family Violence Prevention and Services Program within the Family and Youth Services Bureau in the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is a close partner in the federal work to prevent and end homelessness. The office has administered funding to states and communities across the country for emergency shelter and related services for victims of domestic violence for almost 35 years.

Marylouise Kelley has been with that program for 12 years and has served as its director for 11, supporting communities as they develop and deploy evidence-based practices to help victims and their families regain safety and stability. As she prepares to close out her tenure, Dr. Kelley shared her reflections on the transformation underway to strengthen partnerships between domestic violence and homelessness service providers, the work we still have to do, and her hopes for what’s to come.

USICH: How has our approach to domestic violence services evolved over time?

When I first went to a domestic violence shelter in 1982, a domestic violence advocate gave me the options to either move into the shelter and join the support group or to go back home. That approach ultimately helped me, but I might have chosen safety sooner if I had support to reestablish my life with my two little kids on my own. When survivors say, “I just need support to get through these next few months,” and actually get the support they need to get back on their feet on their own, it changes the dynamic of how we do our work. It begins by asking survivors, “What do you need?” and trusting that they know. We’ll always need domestic violence shelters for those who are in danger, but to have options for someone who doesn’t need shelter, who is safe to stay in their home but needs housing support, is a real step forward.

USICH: What are the most transformative things that have happened in the work on the intersection of domestic violence and family homelessness during your tenure?

There have been so many, but I’ll highlight three. First, there’s been much deeper interagency collaboration across the federal government in the last few years, particularly through the Domestic Violence subgroup of the Interagency Working Group on Ending Family Homelessness. The work of that subgroup has evolved through a recognition that families experiencing homelessness are so often families that have experienced domestic violence. It doesn’t make sense to do our work without thinking about how those issues intersect.

Second, I’m really excited about what we’re learning about the Domestic Violence Housing First model. Through pilot projects in Washington State and from HHS- and DOJ-funded research projects, we’re learning what outcomes are possible with a Housing First model that is intentionally designed to meet the needs of victims of domestic violence. The model has the potential to really shift current practice in the field because of critical components that we know make a difference for victims seeking assistance: flexible funding and mobile advocacy. The ability to ensure a survivor is safe while supporting them on their own terms – this is advocacy in action, this is how we make a difference for survivors who need our help.

And finally, the Domestic Violence and Housing Technical Assistance Consortium (DVHTAC) is another thing I’m proud of. What I love about it is that it began through listening sessions with the field: hearing the issues communities were dealing with, understanding what folks needed from federal agencies to support state and local efforts. As we, and our partners at USICH, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development responded, we knew that we needed to work together to support domestic violence and homelessness service providers and build something big enough and responsive enough to reach all of them. The Consortium has given us a way to convene national, state, and local experts in coordination with federal agencies, and collaboratively sit down to hash out thorny problems at the local level that we’ve grappled with for years.

USICH: What work is still left to do?

We’ve identified a lot of needs and just haven’t yet gotten to solutions. Here are some that are top of mind:

First, while there has been a shift among our federal partners away from transitional housing options and towards permanent housing, we haven’t really addressed how best to meet the needs of victims who may need longer-term services. As HUD’s new joint transitional housing/rapid re-housing model expands, we need to make sure that communities can shape the model to meet the needs of families experiencing domestic violence and homelessness and build in the supports they’re actually seeking. We do that by having domestic violence advocates at the table from the start to help inform program design.

Second, we know that most communities have not yet figured out how to serve victims through coordinated entry. Many are working on it, including the DVHTAC, but they need support in figuring out confidentiality challenges and navigating assessment tools for survivors.

Third, it’s critical that we identify how we’re going to capture data on victims of domestic violence in reports on the prevalence of domestic violence among people experiencing homelessness. We still have hundreds of thousands of people who are turned away every year from domestic violence shelters because they are full. We need to know as much as we can about the needs of families in our communities to make the case for these life-saving services.

There’s a lot of work we all still need to do. The push to end Veteran homelessness brought new ideas and models forward that were then resourced to the point that we’re seeing large communities end Veteran homelessness. We can and should do the same for families and survivors.

USICH: What opportunities are there to expand connections and services for survivors experiencing homelessness?

So many of the survivors who experience homelessness are young and un-resourced. Opportunities to connect with positive family supports – like home visiting programs, child care, and Head Start and Early Head Start—can really make the difference to a young family. They should be an essential component  of services for families experiencing homelessness, and I think we have an opportunity to do more.

Having a more flexible array of housing and financial supports also creates the opportunity to change the quality of the response that victims get from a community. We’re starting to see models that work for victims of domestic violence; if we invest in those models, survivors will have meaningful choices when they come forward to seek help. That’ll be a real shift in the domestic violence and homelessness services fields.

USICH: After 30 years in the field, what wisdom has shaped the way you approach your work?

To solve these problems, we need to keep families—their experiences, their needs—right at the center of our discussion and wrap our resources around that. When we come to the table and ask “What can we do to support you? What do you need? What can I offer?” we come with very different answers than we do when we come to the table and say, “My program does this…and my program does that.” When we keep families at the forefront, I find that everyone is generous about collaborating, sharing their resources, and stepping forward to be part of the solution.

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