There are many myths, attitudes, and preconceived notions surrounding domestic violence. The most resounding of all comes through the chorus of “Why didn’t she just leave?” Whether we like to admit it or not, the majority of individuals wonder about that very notion. The last article on domestic violence delved deep into the topic, and we can all start to understand that DV is about manipulation, isolation, control, fear- all very sound reasons why a woman feels she can’t ‘just leave.’
I would like to take this conversation in a different route, however. What about the women who do leave? What does the path they face truly look like? Unfortunately for these survivors, the ones who are making the decision to leave like we expect them to, there are very scarce resources available to them. More often than not, abusers control the bank accounts, have leases and mortgages in their name, have made certain that survivors have no friends or family left willing to help them, and essentially hold all the power over their partners. This means that when a survivor finally feels ready to leave, she often has no job, no saved income, likely no vehicle, and no real foot to stand on. That is why resources like Umbrella exist, but unfortunately, we don’t have the capacity to help everyone in all the ways they need.
Umbrella in St. Johnsbury currently has enough shelter space to accommodate three women at any one time. Our average stay is usually around 90 days because that is about how long it takes to find secure, stable housing. Even at full capacity, three at a time falls very short of the actual number of survivors who need this emergency housing help. In the frozen winter months, a mother with children can be guaranteed an emergency stay through the Economic Services Division of the Department for Children and Families, often in a hotel room that would be considered safe but not necessarily homey for small children. A woman with no kids however will often have to turn to a warming shelter for the night as the best possible scenario. And if it is not the dead of winter, and the shelter at Umbrella is full, some women end up having the choice between being provided a tent, or inevitably going back to their abuser, because at least they had a roof over their head.
Often times, survivors in these situations flee in an emergency, usually leaving no time to gather belongings like clothes, groceries, even IDs. Again, while there are some resources available- the Hope store is an excellent resource for clothes and food; Umbrella operates with a very small food shelf in addition to help with housing, legal matters, etc.; NEKCA and Economic Services can help with emergency housing among other assistance- more major help from the state may be just out of reach while survivors jump through governmental hoops to first track down social security cards, IDs, and birth certificates that they left without before being able to access help. In addition to this, state housing lists often come with wait lists months long. In order to really feel able to leave, survivors want to know where they are going to will be safe for them, as well as their children if needed. If we truly want to support survivors from leaving these awful situations, we have to understand what they are facing, and right now that is a shortage of housing and funding. We need more landlords and property owners willing to rent to agencies looking to create shelters, willing to rent their spaces to survivors who may not have the best history, and we need our community resources more supported. In these trying times where government funding is not guaranteed, we look to the community- please consider donating more food and clothing to the Hope store, please consider donating money to Umbrella to support housing deposits and housing needs, and please consider ways to most effectively use your space if you’re someone who owns property in the area. More than anything else, survivors need to be believed, they need to be assured that the abuse they endured is not their fault, and they need to know that those who care about them will continue to care, even if they aren’t at a point where they feel ready to leave. Survivors can always find a sense of hope for the future if they know that there are people who care about them, and if they know that the help is out there waiting for them.