Finding ways to end cycles of domestic violence and homelessness

Nonprofit leaders, experts and policymakers gathered at City & State’s “Blueprint for Change: Ending Cycles of Gender-Based Violence & Homelessness” conference to bring light to key obstacles faced by survivors.

Keynote speaker, Dawnn Lewis, founder and CEO of a New Day Foundation, speaks at City & State’s “Blueprint for Change: Ending Cycles of Gender-Based Violence & Homelessness” conference Wednesday

Keynote speaker, Dawnn Lewis, founder and CEO of a New Day Foundation, speaks at City & State’s “Blueprint for Change: Ending Cycles of Gender-Based Violence & Homelessness” conference Wednesday Ralph R. Ortega

Ways to end cycles of domestic violence and homelessness were among key topics discussed at City & State’s “A Blueprint for Change: Ending Cycles of Gender-Based Violence & Homelessness” conference Wednesday. 

Sponsored by the Urban Resource Institute, the largest U.S. provider of domestic violence residential services, the event highlighted key obstacles preventing survivors from receiving adequate care and safety, while also shedding light on subtler issues surrounding gender-based violence and homelessness.

“We recognize that we are a purpose driven organization. The issue of ending domestic violence and homelessness is at the center of all of our clients. That thinking allows us to map this ecosystem, and map our partners. We know we can't do this alone in terms of ending violence and homelessness. So it's going to take all of us: our agency partners, our elected officials, all of you in this room, and our community at large to come together and solve this very important issue. I truly believe that when we come together with intention, we can do amazing things,” said Nathaniel Fields, CEO of the Urban Resource Institute. 

Keynote speaker, Dawnn Lewis, founder and CEO of a New Day Foundation, shared her personal experience with domestic violence and urged attendees to find compassionate solutions to break cycles of intergenerational violence. 

“You can only learn so much about the people you're engaged with. And you do your best to do your best. If you see somebody heading towards trouble, be brave enough to say, ‘You don't want to go that way,’ And if they still go that way – love them like a friend. So Let's love each other enough to direct each other to a healing toward wholeness, to protection, to support, to guidance, to everything that you all stand for, and are here to provide,” Lewis told attendees.

Lewis also emphasized the unpredictability of domestic violence, underlining that anyone can fall victim to gender-based harm. 

“[When] I got introduced to resources, I got introduced to counseling, where I blamed myself. What did I not see? What did I not do? What questions did I not ask? I thought I took the proper precautions. But no one is immune to violence. Regardless of what color you are, regardless of what culture you are, regardless of what age you are. No one is immune,” said Lewis. By setting healthy examples in interpersonal relationships, Lewis urged attendees to foster an empowering and supportive community for survivors. 

Panelists also shed light on the economic barriers to domestic-violence liberation, from escaping coercive financial situations, notably coerced debt. Teal Inzunza, program director of Urban Resource Institute’s Economic Empowerment Program spoke of economic justice in terms of domestic violence: 

“On an interpersonal level or on a relationship level, the way in which coercive financial control plays out is often what we refer to as economic abuse. And that is defined as behaviors or tactics that are systematically used to control an individual's ability to acquire, use or maintain economic resources. This is a very serious issue. And we've heard already, that finances can really restrict a person's ability to live their life fully,” said Inzunza. She also highlighted key aspects of coercive economic circumstances, preventing individuals from fully liberating themselves from violent circumstances. 

“When thinking about coercion, that looks a little different. And it may look different from the external than it does on the internal. When I work with survivors, I've learned to ask them the question: did you feel like you couldn't say no? And I think that really gets to the nature of what course of control is, it may look like a survivor saying, yes, but there's a whole bunch of things happening behind the scenes that lead a person into saying yes, when they would not otherwise would not have otherwise done so. And I think it's important to state that consent is not possible when coercion is present,” said Inzunza. 

Panelist Laura Russel, city wide director of the Family/Domestic Violence Unit of the Legal Aid Society spoke of coercive debt as a common tool of coercive control used by abusers, of which current laws provide victims with little protection. Additionally, with the breadth of specialists required to adequately address each case, most providers suffer due to lack of funding. 

“When funding is available, many funders unfortunately robustly fund things like an order of protection and custody or visitation, but will not fund anything financial, their attitude is, ‘well your client should just be on public assistance and then they'll be able to be okay.’” Russel said.  “And that's not the right answer. We have clients who do not and should not give up the financial pieces of their marriage or the child support or the maintenance and yet they are forced to because funders like when they are under [of] order protection, they're safe. That's the beginning of the case, that is not the end of the case.”

In response, Karen Ford, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Nonprofit Services, echoed the Adams’ Administration’s pledge to provide additional funding. “One of the things I need to do first is work on changing the way that our partners in city government see our nonprofits –  you are an extension of government,” said Ford.

Partnerships remain central to tackling homelessness, especially when dealing with homeless families with pets. Danielle Emery, senior director of PALS Program at URI, emphasized the intersection of pets and domestic violence and homelessness, as pets often provide support and dignity to homeless individuals and survivors. 

“Pets are part of the family. But if you think especially for folks who've experienced domestic violence, or the trauma of homelessness, or going through a crisis, that relationship is really a source of comfort and stability, especially for the children that are in the family. To then separate them from that family member is kind of expounding on that trauma,” Emery said. “And so, not only is it great to keep them together through that process, but then the positive benefits of that human animal connection while they're working on healing is being able to provide that comfort, that peace, and the feeling of dignity of being able to care for your pet and keep a pet with you.” 

Given the worsening housing crisis in New York City, as a great number shelters are left with few available beds, with many more not allowing pets, many families experiencing domestic violence are unable to seek the safety they need. Panelists urged nonprofit leaders and policymakers to collaborate towards streamlining systems and finding holistic solutions to address domestic violence. 

“We're working with survivors around economic independence and justice and we're creating healing environments that will end generational cycles of trauma and suffering,” Fields said. We're also engaging our legislators to create a paradigm shift regarding how they develop solutions to end domestic violence and homelessness.”

“What I want to offer to you is far from inevitable,” Fields added. “That the twin crisis of gender-based violence and domestic violence is solvable with the right policies and investments in place.”