Lacking space, Philly shelter must turn away thousands of abuse victims
Abused women looking for emergency shelter in Philadelphia are hearing that phrase more and more often these days.
Women Against Abuse, the city's only domestic violence shelter, is on track to turn away battered residents about 10,000 times this year for lack of space.
The shelter has been forced to say "no vacancy" to domestic violence victims 8,890 times between January and October 2013, marking an increase in turnaways for the fifth straight year. In all of 2012, the shelter said "no vacancy" 8,199 times; in 2011, 7,946 times; in 2010, 7,288 times; in 2009, 4,671 times; and in 2008, 1,705 times.
Jeannine Lisitski, executive director of Women Against Abuse, blames the trend, in part, on the troubled economy.
"Abuse cuts across all socioeconomic [statuses], all ethnicities, everything. But if you are poor and being abused, you don't have as many options," she said. "So you're going to be reaching out more."
She also said that greater awareness of Philadelphia's domestic violence hotline (866-723-3014) may be a factor.
Women Against Abuse is planning to open a second shelter in June with the help of a $2.5 million city contract, making 100 extra beds available, for a total of 200 beds for domestic violence victims in Philadelphia. Lisitski hopes that will help turn around the alarming trend, though she said it won't fully meet the demand for emergency housing.
"People want to know what the answer is. The answer is a policy nationwide of affordable housing," she said. "That's what it would take to have zero turnaways."
She said other big U.S. cities typically set aside 250 beds for victims of domestic violence.
It was 2011, and she was living in a public housing complex in North Philadelphia with her 10-year-old granddaughter and her husband. A husband who, she says, had been beating her for several years.
"My granddaughter, she's seen a lot," said Little. "A lot that she shouldn't have seen."
So Little, whose real name is being withheld for her safety, decided to do something that many battered women never do. She reached out for help.
Little says she asked the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which manages the city's public housing sites, to move her and her granddaughter to a different apartment.
One far, far away from the alleged abuser.
More than two years would pass, Little says, before PHA finally offered her a new place.
Her situation is not unusual. According to interviews with domestic violence victims and women's advocates, dozens of PHA tenants who claim to have been abused have waited months and sometimes even years to be transferred to new, safer homes. Advocates say the wait in such situations should not be more than a few weeks.
In recent months, PHA has sped up that process somewhat and started to act on advice from women's advocates.
However, those advocates say that the agency is still not relocating many abused residents quickly enough.
"One of the greatest issues that's facing the city of Philadelphia is violence, and we know that violence in the streets stems from violence at home," said Jeannine Lisitski, executive director of the nonprofit Women Against Abuse. "Until we get a grasp on this ... there's nobody who should not view this as their business."
Dozens of families waiting to leave abusive situations
At the beginning of last year, about 40 families in Philly's public housing units were on a waiting list for relocations due to domestic violence, according to Community Legal Services attorney Rasheedah Phillips. (She has been briefed on the matter by PHA.)
PHA did not respond to questions about the waiting list. PHA president Kelvin Jeremiah also would not grant an interview for this story, though an agency spokeswoman initially said he was available.
With help from advocates, Phillips says, PHA has recently cut down its waiting list for abused residents who need to be moved. She says about 10 families were on the list in December, and the typical household is waiting two to three months to be moved, down from six or more months in early 2013.
"Relatively speaking, it's a lot shorter than what it was," she said. "[It's] still a very, very long time. These people are being put into very dangerous situations."
Ideally, Phillips says that families should not be on the waiting list for any longer than two weeks — especially if they prove in court that they're in harm's way.
In the fall of 2012, Little (again, not her real name) and her husband got a divorce. She then asked the Court of Common Pleas for a protection-from-abuse order against him. She alleged in a petition to the court that he had "bitten ... choked, punched and kicked" her and "left bruises on her face."
A Common Pleas judge granted Little a three-year protection order in October 2012, which evicted her ex-husband from the apartment and made it a crime for him to contact her.
But PHA still dragged its feet. According to emails obtained by WHYY/NewsWorks, a PHA attorney said that the eviction was a "remedy" to the situation and Little would not be moved.
"The abuser, of course, still knew where she lived," said Phillips, who is also a pro-bono attorney for Little and others in her situation. "It took several weeks of advocacy to get PHA to understand that."
No solution — and no compassion
To add insult to injury, Little says PHA officials were insensitive.
"They were heartless," she said. "When you're going through something like that ... you want somebody to know that you're telling the truth and know that you've been through this and you're hurting, and they don't see it as that."
Little says that she was finally offered an apartment last week, though the unit may not be suitable because it is located on the third floor and she has back and neck injuries.
Other PHA residents shared similar tales. One woman, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, says that she asked in 2011 to be transferred out of the PHA complex where her abusive ex-boyfriend was living. She had obtained a restraining order against him, but he repeatedly violated it and beat her up, she says.
"He told me the police can't keep him away from me," she said. "I told PHA management about the situation. I even go there with a police report, even with my face being busted, and ... the manager in the office never did anything."
It took two years to finally be relocated, she says.
Domestic violence victims also told of being transferred to housing developments in the very neighborhoods where their abusers lived and of having sensitive documents misplaced by PHA officials.
With an average income of $10,645, families in public housing have few choices outside of PHA. The city's housing market was nearly 69,000 units short of the number of "affordable and available" rental units needed by the city's poor in 2010, according a Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia study.
Philadelphia's only domestic violence shelter, meanwhile, has been forced to turn away thousands of requests for shelter in the last few years due to lack of space. The nonprofit Women Against Abuse is planning to open a second shelter in June.
Lack of housing funds aggravates issue
To proponents of public housing, the stories from Little and other PHA residents are troubling, but not surprising. They see the situation as the result of years of dramatic underfunding of PHA.
The nation's foreclosure crisis and high unemployment rates have pumped up demand for public housing, but Congress has not provided enough money for cities and towns to cope, they say. In fact, lawmakers temporarily cut funding for public housing during the federal sequester.
"What we've seen over the last several years is a real debate about the role of government," said Liz Hersh, executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania. "The impact of that has been that the very lowest-income people who don't have fancy lobbyists and can't buy power and influence, they've been really harmed."
More than 100,000 people are currently waiting in line for PHA units, rental subsidies and other forms of public housing, says PHA spokeswoman Nichole Tillman. In 2005, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that nearly 46,000 families in the city were waiting in line for various types of public housing; in 1997, only about 13,000 families were waiting.
Today, Tillman says, 400 PHA units typically open up each year. That slow trickle undoubtedly makes it difficult for PHA to move its tenants out of abusive homes. In many cases, advocates are essentially seeking two apartments for people who once only needed one.
Lisitski, of Women Against Abuse, agrees that PHA is being shortchanged: "Funding for affordable housing is the big issue."
However, she says, PHA staffers are not adequately trained to deal with tenants who are being abused, and that, too, can slow down the relocation process.
"I hear so much, 'Well, why does she go back if it was really abuse? Now they're together and they look all happy,'" said Lisitski.
Likewise, Phillips says that PHA could move abused residents more quickly by getting creative. She'd like to see PHA set aside a portion of Section 8 vouchers for tenants in Little's situation; or, if two households both need to be relocated, PHA could ask them to switch places.
"Funding doesn't always have to be the excuse," Phillips said.
PHA improvements noted
PHA provided a brief statement in response to several detailed questions by WHYY/NewsWorks.org.
Tillman says the agency recently worked with Women Against Abuse and Community Legal Services to streamline requests by domestic violence victims to be relocated.
"PHA and Women Against Abuse now have open lines of communications. PHA has held meetings with Women Against Abuse and CLS almost on a monthly basis since August 2012 to discuss any challenges with the process," she said. "PHA will continue to collaborate with organizations that also serve this city's most vulnerable."
Advocates at Women Against Abuse and Community Legal Services agree that PHA has made improvements in recent months. For instance, Lisitski says, PHA is working to craft a specific transfer policy for domestic violence victims.
She also says PHA tenants can now submit evidence that was not previously permitted, such as testimony from victim advocates, to prove that they need to be moved.
"PHA has changed dramatically," said Lisitski. "They're very open to community partnerships."
To Little, that's cold comfort. The bottom line, she says, is that PHA should relocate abused families much, much faster than they do now.
"Wait on that person right away," she said. "You can't play with someone's life."