Malaya Flores smiles as she lists the amenities: attached bathroom, king-sized bed, television and pink, flowered bedding she’d saved up for and bought using the discount at her part-time retail job.
When she says the last one, she crosses her hands over her heart and presses them into her chest.
Her first night in that room, which she once rented in a house in Bellevue, was also the first night she’d slept soundly in months. She called it “the first night of her peace of mind.”
Weeks before, 29-year-old Flores, whose name has been changed to protect her safety, was on the brink of homelessness and fleeing an abusive man. She’d emigrated from the Philippines in 2011 to live with her fiance, who kept his past of drug addiction hidden. When he relapsed, she endured the consequences.
She had lived in the United States for only three months and had no friends, family or community. She reached out to one of her abuser’s friends — the only person she could think to contact. “She told me, ‘I’m sorry, honey. He’s at it again. You need to leave,’” Flores said.
She couch-surfed between neighbors and her abuser’s friends but felt she was overstaying her welcome.
“It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever known in my life.” Flores said. “I am 100 percent sure I would’ve ended up [on] the street.”
Thanks to a program called Domestic Violence Housing First (DVHF), she never did. Flores was one of many affected by the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s (WSCADV) five-year pilot program to test DVHF, which prioritizes getting domestic violence survivors into stable, permanent housing.
The program, which began in 2009, comprised 13 agencies and was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. While the traditional approach to domestic violence assistance is often emergency shelter, DVHF focused on helping survivors get — and keep — safe housing, so they wouldn’t have to choose between staying with an abuser or losing basic necessities.
The results, outlined in a February report, were overwhelmingly positive and the WSCADV will move forward with additional funding and a five-year demonstration project through 2019. At the final evaluation, more than 90 percent of those who received services for at least six months had retained their housing.
A roof above
Domestic violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness in the United States. Survivors can face significant barriers to housing — lasting side-effects of an abuser’s coercion that may involve stalking, threats and sabotaging finances and employment.
“It’s terribly impoverishing,” said Judy Chen, WSCADV director of strategic initiatives. “The promise of Housing First is that it allows us to offer really practical support around housing a lot earlier, upstream, before someone has lost everything.”
The program’s second cohort — nine organizations that began receiving funding in 2011 — served nearly 700 clients who were homeless, on the brink of homelessness or in an unsafe home.
The second cohort intentionally focused on communities of color, including refugees and immigrants, who often face additional linguistic and cultural barriers to accessing services or fear leaving a tightknit cultural community to escape an abuser.
Landlords are often hesitant to rent to survivors of domestic violence, turning them down based on past evictions or bad credit that resulted from their abuser’s behavior. Advocates developed relationships with landlords so they could serve as liaisons and negotiate for survivors. This was especially important in rural areas, where housing is limited.
“This also has to work for women on reservations, farmworkers and remote communities where they might not have a lot of transportation or where they are living with jobs that are far and few between,” Chen said.
Regardless of rural or urban settings, stable housing also had a transformative effect on children who endured the trauma of domestic violence: Three-fourths of those served during the pilot program had kids, and some were sleeping in cars when they entered the program. Stable housing allowed them to stay in the same school, have friends over, establish a routine, and sleep well for the first time in years.
Flexing the dollars
If the positive effects of housing seem obvious, the factor that made DVHF so powerful for survivors and agencies is more obscure: flexibility. The program emphasized survivor-driven advocacy — that helping survivors can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach.
While funding for housing assistance usually comes with strings attached — regulations for when and how it can be spent — the funding from the Gates Foundation had few restrictions. This allowed advocates to go beyond paying rent or negotiating leases and address underlying factors contributing to cycles of homelessness and poverty.
“We can’t emphasize enough that for someone who has been working with homelessness prevention and housing stabilization for a long time, the same thing always comes up,” said Andrea Akita, executive director of the InterIm Community Development Association (ICDA).
“And that’s increased flexibility and being able to address really the root of the instability.”
It might be something as simple as a food handler’s permit or a work uniform so a survivor can keep a job, and in turn, pay their rent. LifeWire, a domestic violence agency, paid for a sewing machine so a Russian immigrant could continue her work as a seamstress, paid a debt to a childcare provider so a survivor could put her kids in daycare and replacement tires so one client could drive to work.
“We cannot imagine our services without flexible funding,” said LifeWire Development Director Kelly Becker. “Advocates are able to ask survivors what they truly need to stabilize in housing and work to meet those needs. Advocates can say ‘yes’ to survivors, rather than ‘no.’”
Agencies reported that it typically took a small financial leg-up to help survivors get their footing. At the final follow-up, more than three-quarters of survivors were getting minimal services at a low cost to the agency. Survivors received an average of $1,250, but sometimes it took as little as $40.
“The flexibility of this funding allows us to use a small amount of money to make a world of a difference,” Becker said.
Funding in action
Flores was a prime example. After leaving her abuser, she was eventually referred to ICDA and began working with domestic violence housing specialist Emy Gaviola.
Because Flores came to the U.S. on a fiancé visa, her primary barrier to employment was getting the proper documentation.
ICDA provided rent for the room in Bellevue while Flores was waiting for her papers, and they got her a bus pass, food stamps and gift cards for necessities.
Soon, Flores had a job and started saving money.
But she struggled with the emotional trauma of her abuse. She became suicidal and quit her job after a supervisor verbally harassed her. She didn’t contact Gaviola for a month, ashamed of what she saw as personal failure. By the time she asked for help, she was facing eviction.
“I wanted to save myself, but I didn’t know how, and I didn’t trust people,” Flores said. “I thought they were going to turn their backs and say ‘We already helped you.’ I was wrong.”
With back payments and rental assistance, Gaviola kept Flores from eviction, negotiated with managers to get her job back — away from the employee who had harassed her — and connected her to mental health counseling.
Flores saw the roof over her head as a part of her mental health treatment. It was only in that safety that she could get a good night’s sleep and have the time to pray, mediate and think about what was next in her life.
“You can plan things out,” she said, “and then you can move on to bigger things. If I were a millionaire right now, I would just give everyone a house.”
For Gaviola, being able to address a client’s exact needs was empowering.
“I felt like a super woman — a super caseworker,” she said. “The moment a client would come in here and tell me their circumstances, I would say ‘OK, we can help you.’”
After participating in DVHF, Gaviola said she hopes the future of domestic violence and housing assistance lies in flexible funding.
“I wish there were more because the way it is right now, programs are siloed,” Gaviola said. “There are these specific funds where we say ‘we’ll be able to help you with this, but not this. This, but not this.’”
The next phase of DVHF will launch first in the South-Central region of Washington and later in King County. It will include an in-depth research component and will focus on the regional level, fostering collaboration among agencies and scaling up the approach.
Today, Flores is working and attending school for social services full-time, a field inspired by the help she got at ICDA
“The fact [is] that I know what it feels like to be depressed, to be alone, to be abandoned; I want to give back to the community, to people, to others who are suffering,” she said. “They found resources for me, and that is why I will never quit and never stop fulfilling my dreams. I was lucky. I want to stay lucky.”
She tries not to think about her darker days, though the death threats from her abuser can still echo in her mind.
If anything, she thinks about that room with the king-sized bed and the pink sheets, where she took what seemed like her first full breath since moving to the U.S.
“It was so good to be able to feel like I’m a survivor, not a victim. I feel like I’ve been through the biggest war in life, and I came out being a hero, or at least a survivor. I was alive. I got to sleep in a big bed, in the heat.”