Governments are offering cash to domestic violence survivors — critics say it’s not enough

Black women in the United States and Aboriginal women in Australia face the double-bind of racism and sexism, leading to significantly higher rates of intimate partner violence.

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Domestic violence is a global women’s health issue that is estimated to have affected 736 million women (1 in 3) at least once in their lifetime. 

Programs and policies within the United States for survivors and victims of domestic violence were created with the archetype of the middle-class, white woman as the avatar for all survivors, leading to gaps in services due to systemic racism and biases embedded in an already sparse network to support survivors seeking to flee abuse. 

Black woman domestic violence
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Black women experience domestic violence at disproportionately higher rates than their white counterparts, both in frequency and severity. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the existing pandemic of intimate partner violence as unemployment and stay-at-home orders force victims to spend more time in close contact with their abusers, leading to an uptick in assaults. 

The increase in violence has exposed the importance of emergency housing for people trying to escape a violent current or former partner. The scale of both pandemics – domestic violence and COVID-19 – has created an urgent global need for emergency financial support and housing assistance for survivors.

Last week, the Australian government began offering financial assistance in the amount of 5,000 AUD ($3,700 US) to survivors of domestic violence. This support, called an “Escaping Violence Payment,” is a two-year trial program made possible by the women’s safety package valued at 1.1 billion AUD ($820M US) that was announced by the government earlier this year. 

The Escaping Violence Payment fund is administered by the UnitingCare Network. UnitingCare Australia houses the national community services network for the Uniting Church, the third-largest Christian denomination in Australia. It has the unique distinction of being the first Christian denomination created in Australia. 

Unlike the United States, Australia does not adhere to a separation between church and state. The blurring of lines between the government and faith-based institutions, particularly Christianity, has given faith-based organizations such as UnitingCare Network the administrative power to direct social services programs for the country. 

Like Black women in the United States, Aboriginal women in Australia face the double-bind of racism and sexism, leading to significantly higher rates of intimate partner violence than those of other races and ethnicities within the country. Aboriginal and Torres Strait women are eleven times more likely to experience intimate partner violence. 

Aboriginal woman
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Indigenous leaders are so frustrated with the failure to address the needs of this population that there are calls for an entirely separate program and funding created to assist these survivors who face larger barriers to safety because of the legacy of colonization and ongoing racism. 

Monica McLaughlin is the director of policy at the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), a U.S.-based organization working to address the causes and consequences of domestic violence through cross-sector collaborations at the state, national, and international level. 

In an exclusive interview with theGrio, she shared her thoughts on Australia’s initiative and how housing needs for survivors are being addressed in the United States. 

“We’re in a housing crisis and many people cannot afford to move. There is another layer not being discussed in the midst of our housing crisis, which is [that] housing is safety,” McLaughlin tells theGrio. “We want to ensure that survivors can get housing, however the federal government has a way to go.” 

The NNEDV is a supporter of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which is currently being negotiated by Democrats on Capitol Hill. If passed, it is intended to address systemic issues that include enhancing the stock of housing available and providing vouchers and affordable housing for lower-income people. 

U.S. President Joe Biden
U.S. President Joe Biden walks into the U.S. Capitol building with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for a meeting with House Democrats on the continued negotiations over the domestic spending Bills before the President departs for Europe on October 28, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

“Once that is established, there are survivor-specific needs in housing,” notes McLaughlin. “The Federal Government recognizes survivors fleeing their homes as eligible for homeless system responses such as rapid rehousing, which is when you are given a short-term housing subsidy. It’s what we call ‘shallow support.’ It isn’t permanent.”

After lapsing under the Trump administration, a bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) passed the U.S. House of Representatives in March 2021 and awaits introduction and passage in the Senate. VAWA provides landmark protections for victims and survivors who reside in federally-subsidized housing (an example of this is Section 8).

As pointed out by McLaughlin, “Survivors used to get evicted because of the actions of the abuser, since [domestic violence] was seen as a disturbance to the community. That no longer can occur.” 

While researching his 2016 book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, author Matthew Desmond found that it was Black women who faced disproportionate rates of evictions due to nuisance ordinances. 

McLaughlin adds, “From our perspective, that’s a combination of racism and domestic violence conspiring against Black women’s safety.”

So how does the U.S. housing assistance network for survivors of domestic violence compare to Australia? McLaughlin says a new law allows DV survivors to “transfer” their voucher to the private rental market.

“The voucher subsidizes a move within the local area in which they reside, with a cap of $10,000 in aid,” she says.  

Public Housing
(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Unfortunately, there are limitations to the new law, as it is only for people already within the system. This is where the American Rescue Plan steps in.

“In the American Rescue Plan there are Emergency Housing Vouchers which are open to anyone attempting to flee domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and dating violence,” McLaughlin explains.  

“Those $5 billion of vouchers are available and are being used in local communities for the private rental market. It includes moving costs and some services dollars for a local DV org to help with transportation, schooling, counseling, backpacks for kids.” 

While promising, McLaughlin admits there is still room for improvement. “It’s a good start, but there is still a need for cash assistance. Biden is currently attempting to get $250 million in cash assistance passed, but it looks like it will happen — just not at the original amount pushed in the appropriations bill.  They’ve seen it work in other countries.” 

In Australia’s “Escaping Violence Payment,” $1,500 is in cash, with the remainder of the $5,000 in tax-free assistance applicable to direct payments for items needed to establish a home. Critics point out that the assistance is not enough. 

The Australian Council of Trade Unions estimates it costs approximately 18,000 AUD for a survivor to secure new housing. Others have pointed out the unfairness of a survivor being forced to leave their home, often with just the shirts on their back, instead of their abuser. While moving into a new home is costly and disruptive, one thing it does is provide safety to survivors who don’t want their former partner to know their whereabouts. 

When contrasted with the Australian system’s use of a behemoth faith-based community network with a central headquarters, the U.S. system is struggling to build infrastructure that connects our various states through a central federal system. 

“Our housing system for survivors is complicated and patchwork. Right now, the housing resources run out before the needs run out. Survivors are facing an abuser headwind,’ says McLaughlin. “Their needs don’t end just when they get a new apartment, and it’s our hope that our evolving system addresses this. There has been a lot of progress.”

Sil Lai Abrams,

Sil Lai Abrams is an NABJ award-winning writer, gender violence activist, and advocate. You can follow her on Twitter at @Sil_Lai

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