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D.C. Battles New Pandemic of Domestic Violence-Related Homelessness

Amid the economic, health and educational uncertainties caused by the coronavirus, an equally virulent pandemic co-exists: the increased instances of intimate partner violence.

On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner or parent in the United States. In a single year, this equates to more than 10 million women, men, and children. Additionally, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner physical violence, sexual violence, or intimate stalking.

And with schools, businesses, and many outreach services shuttered under COVID-19 mandates, the sudden spike in homelessness among survivors of domestic and intimate partner violence has pushed outreach agencies into new territory.

Organizations, including Network for Victim Recovery of D.C., Victim Legal Network of D.C., and The Safe Sisters Circle, have shifted most of in-person intake services to tele-counseling and intake models, but insists their ability to meet the needs of clients has not been compromised.

Koube Ngaaje, executive director of the District Alliance for Safe Housing, said the level of violence has almost become a second pandemic with the organization witnessing higher lethality and sexual assault cases since the pandemic began.

“How that pans out means that the survivors, and families now have fewer options to escape while they are trapped at home with abusers. That means that our program advocates are providing more safety planning with survivors who are trapped indoors,” Ngaaje said.

At the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak while the city was in full quarantine, DASH continued to work diligently in building new partnerships to foster greater access of services and needs with community staples including the D.C. Central Kitchen, and other District mental health services for survivors.

DASH continues to facilitate patient check-ins and provides assistance packages to abuse victims, including stipends ranging from $100 to $2,200 to provide survivors a cushion to help them relocate if fleeing from an abusive environment without adequate resources.

Dr. Allison Jackson, division chief of the Child and Adolescent Protection Center at Children’s National Hospital said that many variables contribute to the rise in violence under COVID-19 quarantine, including the anxiety and frustration children experience while separated from peers and financial insecurities faced by parents. Those anxieties and frustrations create hostile family environments, that ripple into acts of violence.

“We know that there is a co-occurrence between domestic violence and child abuse. So, homes where one is taking place are very likely to have the other,” Jackson said. “Of those children that we are seeing, I would say that the severity of what we’re witnessing has increased. Compared to the same period — March through August in 2019, we’ve had about a 30 percent increase in the number of severely injured children.”

As many women and children flee these situations under duress and without a plan, homelessness deepens.

Such was the case more than 50 years ago when Wilma Walker fled her abusive husband with her four children in tow during the D.C. race rebellion following Dr. King’s assassination. While the situation was not a pandemic, it was dire. Walker found herself locked down and under martial law.

“There was no plan and I needed to get from upper Northwest to Virginia to my sister’s home. We ran through alleys and eventually a cop stopped us and seeing my bruises, drove us into Arlington,” Walker, 80, said. “It breaks my heart to think that women being beat up like I was are stuck in the house with their tormenters under this virus. These organizations are lifelines.”

Aid organizations insist that there are still methods to ensure — even under coronavirus quarantine, those in need can access help. For instance, DASH operates the largest housing program for survivors of domestic violence in the District of Columbia — Cornerstone, a 42-unit apartment building. Through community collaborations they have welcomed several new resident survivors into the dwelling during the pandemic, providing a two-year period, covered in cost, for survivors to regroup as they transition into a hopeful ending.

“Between our staff, our board, our volunteers — there is a very strong sense of resiliency within the organization, and to continue to serve our mission in the community really has stepped up to provide the finances to sustain the work that we do during this time,” Ngaaje said.

This article is part of the Washington Informer’s 2020 contribution to the DC Homeless Crisis Reporting Project in collaboration with other local newsrooms. The collective works will be published throughout the day at DCHomelessCrisis.press.

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