In Our Backyard Interview: Safety from Domestic Violence is an Economic Issue

Last month, we observed Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM). More than 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will experience rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. DVAM represents a time for communities to come together to support survivors of domestic violence and the dedicated advocates working to keep them safe. To commemorate DVAM, we are publishing an interview with a group of staff members with DC Survivors and Advocates For Empowerment (DC SAFE), an organization that “ensures the safety and self-determination for survivors of domestic violence in the Washington, DC area through emergency services, court advocacy and system reform.”

Disclosure: Alyssa Peterson previously served as a volunteer domestic violence advocate with the organization.

Alyssa Peterson: How does economic security matter in domestic violence cases?

DC SAFE: If the abuser and the victim are living together, she has limited options. Most people of an average income wouldn’t be able to just go and put themselves up in a hotel on zero notice. If you don’t have family or friends in the city, it’s two-hundred dollars a night for a hotel. If it’s thirty degrees out, you can’t just go sleep on a park bench—if that’s even an option for anybody. If you have children, it’s even more complicated. So, having access to housing, or money for housing, is one of the biggest barriers to getting away from the abuser.

Domestic violence is said to affect people equally across sections of society regardless of income, but [that’s] not what we experience. And that’s mostly because those with income can handle domestic violence on more of a self-help basis, whereas those without income are forced to resort to [public] services and place their violence that they’re experiencing out into the open. Somebody with means can put themselves up into a hotel [or] can hire an attorney to divorce somebody and seek assets. Those without means are going to have to come to the D.C. Superior Courthouse and seek emergency housing through the city.

Alyssa: Can you all explain a little bit about your work?

DC SAFE: One of our programs is called the Court Advocacy Program (CAP). We accompany clients to court, provide them emotional support, [and] we can also work on different things that happen in court like warrants.

We can also refer survivors to different social services, including Crime Victims Compensation, which is an organization run by the government and the court systems that assists and gives some financial support to victims of crime in D.C. We [also] have several partner agencies that provide free legal services to survivors of domestic violence. We can also refer and place individuals in our shelter program, and provide them with referrals for counseling [or] forensic nurse examinations.

We assist with running our 24-hour help line, OCAP. We do things like book emergency housing, get lock changes, safety plan, [and] talk victims through both the civil and legal remedies that are available to them, often referring them to come to the intake center if they want to talk to an advocate or file for a protective order. Transportation is also something, especially [to get] to a safe place or a courthouse.

Alyssa: We’ve seen a massive shortage in affordable housing.  Has that put a lot of pressure on your services?

DC SAFE: Absolutely. One of [our] top concerns when we meet with survivors is where is [the survivor] supposed to go?

If you have a client that can transfer to a different county in Maryland—that looks very different from a client who’s really stuck in the housing system in D.C. Some people were on [a] waiting list for a long time which could be as long as 10 years or more in many cases—[they] are afraid to leave their situation because they don’t want to lose that spot.  They don’t want to be with the abuser, but they don’t want to lose this place that they finally got to after all these years.

Having access to housing, or money for housing, is one of the biggest barriers to getting away from the abuser.

Then, if you look at the homeless systems, the challenges there are that we work on a crisis basis and [the homeless system] may not be working on a crisis basis. [The homeless systems] may take months for them to take a client. Or there may be sobriety rules that a client can’t adhere to. If you have a program that requires that a client have documented clean time for sixty days, and we’re a crisis shelter [with maximum stay period of less than sixty days], then there’s no way that those numbers are going to match up. Even if my client is saying: “I want to be clean, I’ve been clean since the moment I got here,” that’s still over a month left before the client can even begin to think about getting into these programs.

Alyssa: Is the shelter system even a real option for survivors?

DC SAFE: It’s not ideal. Usually, the conversation is [that] if you have kids and you need an emergency shelter, and you aren’t getting in a transitional program [(another housing option for survivors)], you’re going to be leaving the district. There just aren’t options really here currently. For people who face multiple levels of trauma, going into a shelter [means] there’s little observation of what’s happening, or sharing rooms with multiple people. That may cause [survivors] to face other levels of trauma. [Survivors] may be victimized in those shelters. And then there’s the fact that [you usually] have to take your stuff with you every single day when you leave, it’s so much easier for someone to find you when you’re out on the street every day.

And ultimately, we believe that a survivor knows her situation better than anybody else in the whole world. She or he is the only one that knows what’s best, so we have some situations where they may choose option B as opposed to going to a shelter. That’s an empowered decision and we support that. It can be very difficult when you have a limited number of options. As a society, we have created a system where people really have a lack of choices.

Alyssa: Do you see a lot of survivors in a situation where an abuser has harmed their credit or economic wellbeing?

DC SAFE: Credit is a continuing issue and it’s something that we’re trying to find more resources [to address]. Even a client who has the option to transfer [to alternative low-income housing], we may see that because of back rent, they may not be able to transfer until they pay that off. The reason that they may not have paid it off is because of financial manipulation that happened with the abuser.

Which is why there’s a real need for second chance housing in the District for people who have credit issues and need to be able to prove income.

In addition, [survivors] may have wages in cash. They have wages that may be much easier to steal and manipulate. And of course, sometimes the abuser is borrowing money. He keeps borrowing. He borrows a hundred here, two hundred there, and never pays it back. And suddenly, the victim is out two-thousand dollars that she’s just been fronting to him out of her paycheck, and she can’t pay rent.

Alyssa: Are there other things that D.C. is doing specifically that help the economic security of survivors?

DC SAFE: D.C. is starting to recognize domestic violence as an extremely serious issue, as opposed to something that should stay inside the home. Every agency is continuing to take this very seriously. [D.C. has] some of the most progressive policies surrounding domestic violence.

D.C. has sick and safe leave.  You can take sick time and you can also take safe time. So, you can take time off of work, utilizing your sick days to get safe if you are experiencing domestic violence.

[But] there remains a ton of work to be done. It’s great that that law is in place, but it isn’t going to do very much for a tipped worker or a low-income [worker] who has no idea what sick and safe leave is; or an employer who is going to look at a sick and safe leave request and just not [allow it]. So, there’s a lot of work to do in outreach and enforcement.

Survivors in D.C. also have the right to break their lease early with no penalties, which is fantastic. So, if a survivor just signed a lease in January, [it] may be actually one of the reasons that they may not report [domestic violence]. They may say I just signed this in January. They may say I’ll just stay here and keep the doors locked and then in a year when I feel like I can move, I can.

And then when you tell people—and this is something people don’t really know—and I was meeting with someone today and I said, “Let’s write up this template together.” It’s a letter from the survivor. It’s something from her that she gives to the landlord that explains what her rights are. She signs it and then she’s theoretically supposed to be able to move two weeks later. I think that’s very helpful.

Alyssa: Are there other programs to support low-income survivors?

DC SAFE: The D.C. Department of Human Services does have a domestic violence work exemption for TANF [(Temporary Assistance to Needy Families)]. If [a TANF recipient] is a domestic violence survivor, not only can they be exempted from the work requirement for three months, with the option of re-opting after three months, but they can also be referred to counseling and case management.

Alyssa: I’ve read studies that the TANF exemption is underutilized. Is that the case in D.C.?

DC SAFE: Last year, they had a grand total of three exceptions granted because people just didn’t ask for it. People don’t know. Because of the vast bureaucracy of the D.C. Department of Human Services, it makes it almost impossible for a client to know how to navigate [the system]. [A survivor has] to get a referral letter from an advocate that would be faxed to a certain person [in the Department of Human Services], and then a follow up call would have to be made to that person, who would then have the client verify, and then work through the process of initiating a work exemption.

That’s the entire reason that SAFE exists because clients can’t navigate the system on their own. It’s bureaucratic, it’s byzantine… you need an MSW to know how to access all the services that you’re entitled to. And [survivors are] dealing with their court case, and finding housing and child care, and a new job, or whatever. They need to focus on doing that, and then we can focus on advocacy piece.

And when you’ve spent years being beaten down by somebody who’s trying to make you not advocate for yourself… Your abuser’s been telling you for however long that everything is your fault; that you’re a terrible person. So why do you feel comfortable advocating for yourself? You need somebody to tell you that you have a right to these services—somebody who can help you connect with the agencies and tell you that you deserve them.




How Voter ID Laws Affect Women of Color

Headlines are telling a bleak story this election season, particularly for women of color.

Fast food and home care workers—the vast majority of them minority women who are living in poverty—have been striking for a living wage. Middle class and low-income families across the country are struggling to make ends meet. And while they are busy fighting to provide for their families and earn a living, their constitutional right to vote—to participate in democracy, to voice their opinions on the policies that shape this country—is under attack.

On a recent press call to discuss grassroots efforts to engage voters in Minnesota, Alice Flowers, a grandmother, spoke of her own experiences with economic insecurity.  But the point she made that really stuck with me was about the threat she feels to her voting rights.

“I can’t help but think we’re having to fight the same battles my parents fought in segregated Mississippi,” she said. “And that’s just not right.”

Under some states’ new restrictive voter ID laws, individuals must have a state-issued photo ID that matches the name on their voter registration cards. For women in the low-wage workforce—approximately two-thirds of whom are women of color—the time and cost of acquiring a photo ID are real barriers.

Imagine you live in Texas, several hours away from the nearest DMV. You’re a working mother with a chaotic shift schedule, trying to pay bills and care for your family. Maybe you were married and hyphenated your name, and now your photo ID and voter registration card don’t match. Maybe you never even had a state-issued photo ID to begin with. In these kinds of instances, the new laws will prevent you from voting, even if you were a registered voter in the past.  Under the guise of protecting our democratic process, these laws succeed only in disenfranchising low-income women of color and others, and threatening our democratic process.

Women are consistently overrepresented in the number of people who are affected by these voter restrictions. In North Carolina, for example, women represent 54% of voters in the state, but they comprise 64% of the voters who are unable to vote under the new laws. That’s more than 200,000 disenfranchised women voters, and for women of color the data is even worse. While black women represented less than 24% of all women registered to vote in the state in 2012, they made up more than 34% of the registered women voters who didn’t have the necessary photo ID.

Texas has one of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the nation.  In fact, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos blocked the state from enforcing it, concluding that Republican lawmakers had intentionally acted to decrease voter turnout of the growing minority population.  Unfortunately, the Supreme Court is allowing the law to be implemented in the upcoming election while it is appealed, and as a result more than 600,000 registered voters might be disenfranchised, including a disproportionate number of minority Texans.

These laws are being pushed at the state level by conservative lawmakers who claim that they are protecting elections from voter fraud, but the voter fraud doesn’t exist. A report by the US Government Accountability Office in September 2014 found that the Department of Justice reported “no apparent cases of in-person voter impersonation charged by DOJ’s Criminal Division or by U.S. Attorney’s offices anywhere in the United States, from 2004 through July 3, 2014.” But there is certainly evidence that voter ID laws keep many women from voting on the issues that matter to them—like increasing the minimum wage, requiring equal pay for equal work, creating paid family and sick leave, and providing affordable child and elder care—and from kicking out the politicians who support these discriminatory laws.

Ultimately, the new voting restrictions need to be struck down by the Supreme Court.  But until then, those of us who can vote, must vote—and must use our vote to ensure that the voices of women of color are heard at the polls.



2014 Torchlight Prize Winners: The Power of Community-led Collective Action

Every day in communities across the United States, regular people are coming together to imagine, create, and demand better futures for themselves and their communities. While they occasionally make the news, more often their efforts go unnoticed.

In Detroit, elders volunteer to patrol their neighborhoods, using walkie-talkies to communicate and to combat break-ins. In San Francisco, several women created their own support group called Solutions for Women that encourages emotional wellness and promotes education.  In Boston, a group of neighbors converted a vacant, trash-filled, city owned lot into a gardening space with compost, flower beds, and a rainwater-catching system that allows them to grow food, learn about urban agriculture, and build community.

Until we recognize and hold up these collective efforts, we will miss critical lessons about how we can effectively tackle the issues our communities care about – like community safety, social justice, economic mobility, and better health.

A few months ago on, Family Independence Initiative Founder Mauricio Lim Miller issued a call for nominations for the 3rd annual Torchlight Prize – a national award, the Family Independence Initiative (FII) established to publically recognize the leadership, skill, and initiative demonstrated by self-organized community groups. Here are the winners—each will receive a $10,000 prize in recognition of their efforts to improve and strengthen their communities:

El Valle Women’s Collaborative is based in the rural town of Ribera, New Mexico. The founding members created the group to address a unique set of environmental and economic challenges faced by families in their community. Their goal: to strengthen their economy so they could work where they live and create a safe space for neighbors to gather and engage in community-building events and activities.  The group has established several projects in pursuit of their mission, including El Valle Thrift Exchange, a retail thrift store that allows customers to pay what they can afford instead of a set price; Earn and Learn, a small business development training program; and Bueno Para Todos Cooperative, which supports local farmers in taking their produce to market.

HOLA Ohio was founded to improve opportunities for the Latino community in northeast Ohio through organizing, advocacy, and civic engagement. In the early 2000s, the population of immigrant workers grew exponentially and led to clashes with the established community, as well as labor abuses, discrimination, and disparities in healthcare and education. What started as a small, informal group of Latino immigrants in Painesville, Ohio, has since grown into four chapters that have influenced immigration policy both locally and nationally. The group has saved many immigrants from incarceration and family separation due to deportation. Through political education, HOLA empowers its members who previously lived in fear on the margins of society.

Facing one of the highest crime rates in the country—and following the murder of a young resident—community members in North Oakland, California organized the North Oakland Restorative Justice Council to examine ways to sustainably curb violence in their neighborhood. The group meets every month to review evictions, shootings, and other local conflicts.  They also organize trainings, fundraisers, healing circles, and other approaches to preventing, treating, and managing interpersonal and institutional community violence. In 2015, the group will launch a restorative justice alternative sentencing pilot project to help bring an end to the “preschool to prison” pipeline for youth in North Oakland.  

Finally, KhushDC, is a volunteer-supported group that promotes awareness and acceptance—along with fostering positive cultural and sexual identity—for members of the South Asian lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) community. KhushDC organizes advocacy initiatives to address the criminalization of homosexuality and hate crimes due to race, sexual orientation, and gender presentation. The group also collaborates with other LGBTQ organizations in the DC metropolitan area to host discussion groups, participate in Gay Pride events, and organize other social events that build a sense of community.

These Torchlight Prize winners represent a small sample of the powerful work that’s happening in communities across the country.  They show us that by working together, families and communities can achieve powerful and sustainable results and tackle some of our nation’s most pressing social and economic challenges. They also remind us that in addition to pushing for policy solutions, we need to examine and support the collective work being done by community based organizations to spur economic and social mobility.

A different way forward is possible, and by working together, we can make change happen.

Author’s note: Learn more about this year’s winners and finalists, and read about past honorees, on the Torchlight Prize website.



Does America Really Believe in Second Chances?

In America, we punish people for being poor.  From predatory lending, to the criminalization of homelessness, to modern day debtors’ prisons, we make life expensive for individuals and families who are already struggling to make ends meet.

But we don’t just punish people for being poor.  In some cases, we punish them for being punished.

Consider the felony drug ban, which imposes a lifetime restriction on welfare and food stamp benefits for anyone convicted of a state or federal drug felony.  Passed in the “tough on crime” era of the mid-1990s, the ban denies basic assistance to people who may have sold a small amount of marijuana years or even decades ago and have been law-abiding citizens ever since.

Because the felony drug ban was adopted with little debate, it’s hard to know exactly what Congress intended.  But we can measure the law’s effect.  Last year, The Sentencing Project found that the legislation subjects an estimated 180,000 women in the twelve most impacted states to a lifetime ban on welfare benefits.

Given racial disparities throughout the criminal justice system — particularly related to the war on drugs — banning benefits based on a prior drug conviction has brutally unfair consequences for people of color.  About 60% of people in America’s prisons are racial and ethnic minorities.  Of those individuals serving time for drug offenses, about two-thirds are black or Latino.  Further, blacks are three to four times more likely to be arrested for drug offenses than whites, even though they use and sell drugs at roughly the same rates.

People who cannot meet basic needs may be more likely to turn to dangerous activities.  A study by researchers at Yale Medical School found that women who are denied food assistance due to a drug conviction are at greater risk of hunger. These women are also more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior such as prostitution in order to get money for food.

The felony drug ban is just one of many collateral consequences that formerly incarcerated individuals face as they strive to reenter society.  Some of these barriers are informal: an employer who will not hire a person with a criminal record; a university application that requires all applicants to “check the box” for a prior arrest or conviction.

We don’t just punish people for being poor. In some cases, we punish them for being punished.<br />

But private sector discrimination has been compounded by laws that erect barriers and cut services for people sent to prison.  In the 1990s, Congress barred Pell grants for incarcerated individuals — ensuring that most could not receive a college education prior to release — and restricted access to public housing and financial aid for higher education for some former prisoners.

Felony disenfranchisement laws – which date to colonial times but were tailored in the post-Reconstruction era to exclude black voters – place voting restrictions on an estimated 5.85 million Americans.  In the upcoming elections, more than one in five black adults will be denied the right to vote in Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia due to a criminal conviction.

Fortunately, as public attitudes about mass incarceration have changed, there is a growing recognition that fair sentencing can meet the mutual goals of punishment and rehabilitation.  Imposing collateral consequences after a criminal conviction is not only vindictive but also counterproductive to building safe and healthy communities.

In recent months, federal lawmakers in both parties have introduced legislation to remove some of these barriers and promote a safer transition into society.  The REDEEM Act, introduced by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rand Paul (R-KY), would allow the sealing of criminal records and lift the ban on benefits for some people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses.  Though the bill should go much further — for example, by also lifting restrictions on housing and education benefits — it is a good first step toward restoring access to assistance for individuals who urgently need it.

Former President Bill Clinton — who signed the felony drug ban into law — recently told a group of mayors and law enforcement officials that some measures intended to address crime have been misguided and others have gone too far.  Clinton predicted that criminal justice reform would be debated in the 2016 presidential race.  If so, it will represent a major shift in our politics, which have too often focused on getting tough on crime rather than on promoting healthy communities.  But for millions of people who are still being punished long after completing their sentences, 2016 is too long to wait.

It is an injustice to punish people for being poor.  It is doubly unjust to punish them after they have already been punished.


First Person

SNAP into Action: Celebrate 50 Years of Food Stamps Using #snap4SNAP

Fifty years ago President Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act of 1964 into law.  The legislation made the food stamp program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), permanent.

SNAP has helped to keep food on the table and in the fridges of families for five decades. It is also a program that helps keep kids and families healthy in times of need.  Yet, despite its success, SNAP often faces political attacks that result in cuts to its funding.

One significant cut occurred almost a year ago on November 1, 2013. Every family participating in SNAP saw their benefits reduced, meaning less food and fewer meals.  The impact of this and other cuts helps to show the importance of SNAP and demonstrates why it should be strengthened and celebrated instead of demonized and diminished.

It is critical that we learn and share more about SNAP—what it really does for families and why it is so important to millions of Americans.  We need to help people understand that the program is a strong anti-poverty measure that helps families thrive.

That’s why on Thursday, October 30 from 2:00-4:00 ET, the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, Witnesses to Hunger, and over 40 other organizations will tweet and post about SNAP using #snap4SNAP.  We will post pictures, information, and stories about SNAP, and we hope you will join us.

Members of Witnesses to Hunger are kicking off the #snap4SNAP campaign today at TalkPoverty with these reflections on the role of SNAP in their lives:

“My youngest daughter, Prayer, is 5 years old and has severe food allergies – to wheat, eggs, peanuts, and tree nuts. To keep her healthy and safe I need to buy her food from specialty stores, which costs a lot of money. With the cuts to SNAP, it has been even more of a struggle to make sure she gets the food she needs. And in that process, I’ve had to make tough choices, taking away some of the money I allot for food for my other daughter in order to feed Prayer. Taking food away from one mouth to try to feed the other – it’s terrible. And if I can’t get the proper nutrition, I’m of no good to either one of my daughters.”

Juell Frazier, Witnesses to Hunger, Boston

Juell is the mother of two girls. She graduated from medical assistance school, and is working on getting a Bachelor’s degree in human services. Juell wants to see changes in Boston, including holding landlords responsible and creating clean and safe environments for families.

“Families depend on SNAP every month. Any cuts to SNAP were just crazy – they make things harder for families who are already struggling.”

Tiffany Ross, Witnesses to Hunger, Philadelphia

Tiffany is the mother of one daughter, Zaniyah. Zaniyah’s father, Troy, was shot and killed while Tiffany was still pregnant. Tiffany was living in a homeless shelter for young mothers, and is now in an apartment subsidized by the shelter. She completed a community college program on a scholarship and now works as a pharmacy technician.

“I know what it is like to struggle to feed your family.  I have four children and I rely on SNAP to ensure my kids and I have enough to eat.  As the cost of food increases, it gets harder and harder for parents like myself to feed our families.  I already know that I am not giving my children the nutrients they need simply because I cannot afford it.  Like all other SNAP participants, I received a cut in November. And now, since I live in New Jersey, I will face another major cut thanks to “heat and eat” provision cut from this year’s Farm Bill. I cannot tell my children, ‘I’m sorry we don’t have anything for dinner tonight.’  My 14 year old eats 4 or 5 times when he comes home from school because his class eats lunch before 11 o’clock each day.  He is hungry when he gets home and I do my best to try to fill his belly. Any reduction in SNAP benefits will mean I have to take money from paying my bills to use at the grocery store since I don’t have any buffer to help make up for this loss, meaning my son will be hungry.  My SNAP benefits already did not last for the month. I was already struggling to keep food on the table. SNAP needs to be protected, and supported! Not taken away from families who are just trying to do right by their kids.”  

Anisa Davis, Witnesses to Hunger, Camden

Anisa is the mother of four children and grandmother of a 4 year-old. She is helping to raise her grandson while her daughter works two jobs, and she is also supporting her oldest son, a full-time college student.

No parent should have to worry about whether their child will be ok, whether there will be enough food for them to eat

“I already work to stretch my SNAP benefits by shopping around for the best deals and I go to three food pantries – but especially after the November 1st cuts last year I still don’t have enough to last the month, and it has increased my stress and decreased my food supply.  My son loves bananas and I would love to encourage him to eat more fruits but I can’t afford them and they aren’t available at food pantries.  No parent should have to worry about whether their child will be ok, whether there will be enough food for them to eat, whether you will have dinner for them after school but I do worry.”

Bonita Cuff, Witness to Hunger, Boston

Bonita is a mother of five, ranging in age from 6 to 26. She currently cares for her young niece whose parents both work but cannot afford safe childcare; once her niece goes to pre-k Bonita hopes to return to full-time employment to better the lives of her family members.

“I go to the pantry at the New Haven Salvation Army. I took a picture of the sign outside that says, ‘Emergency Pantry.’ It says it’s an emergency, and before I could use it as an emergency. But since the cuts to SNAP, the pantry is now a part of my monthly budgeting for food.”

Kimberly Hart, Witnesses to Hunger, New Haven

Kim is an advocate for social and economic injustices.  She is also a member of Mothers for Justice, the New Haven Food Policy Council, and the Food Assistance Working Group. 

“It’s a tragedy that we constantly have to prove that we exist.  With the November 1st cuts we were again pushed further and further away from the assistance we need to provide stability for our families.  We are taught as children to fight for what we believe in and take a stand.  Witnesses to Hunger will continue to do just that.”

Barbie Izquierdo, Witnesses to Hunger, Philadelphia

Barbie is the mother of one son and one daughter. She was featured in the documentary A Place at the Table, sharing her experience of struggling with food insecurity and the cliff effect. Today, Barbie is an honor-roll student at Ezperanza College where she studies criminal justice.

Join us this Thursday as we snap into action to celebrate SNAP.  You can take part by signing up here or simply hop on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram on Thursday from 2:00 – 4:00pm ET and search for #snap4SNAP.