Surviving DV: Housing That’s Safe is Key

By CLAIRE STREMPLE

Alaska Beacon

After she left her abusive boyfriend, Brynn Butler also lost her apartment. Drug use is a common coping response to the trauma of unhealthy relationships and she said her addiction to methamphetamines “spiraled.”

“It just snowballed into, pretty much I lost everything, right? I was staying at a trap house with my children who were 12 and 13 at the time,” she said.

Brynn Butler in her office in downtown Fairbanks in September. (Photo by Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon.)

Another man promised her housing and stability in another state so she could “get her life straight,” but she said that ended up being another abusive situation. When he broke her eye socket, Butler said she decided to change her life.

“I was really hesitant to go to the emergency room, because I had track marks all over my arms and I was just a very sore sight,” she said. “I looked in the mirror and I’m like, ‘Who is this person?’ and then I decided I couldn’t do meth anymore.”

Butler went to the Interior Alaska Center for Non-violent Living in Fairbanks and was placed in transitional housing, where she could stay at the women’s shelter for six months and stabilize. The staff saw such a dramatic change in Butler that they offered her a job, which helped her work toward independent living.

Survivors of domestic violence often need assistance to secure and pay for housing because abusers commonly sabotage their victim’s economic stability. That can result in trouble finding rental properties because of poor credit, rental and employment histories. The support Butler got for housing gave her room to quit drugs and hold down a job. Now she is the housing coordinator for the city of Fairbanks, and she’s working to build out transitional services for the community.

A number of domestic violence survivors in Fairbanks say housing saved their lives. Affordable housing is a crucial step for stability after domestic violence, but it is hard to come by in Fairbanks and across Alaska. Advocates say that causes a backup in shelters, which can mean more people return to their abusers or other risky situations.

“We don’t have housing to put them in”

Interior Center for Non-violent Living is the only low-barrier shelter in Fairbanks, where winter temperatures can regularly dip to 40 below. A low barrier shelter has no conditions, like sobriety, to enter. Emergency shelters are not a long-term solution, but they are a starting point for unhoused people.

Kara Carlson, IAC’s interim director, said she has housing vouchers available and a surplus of rental assistance dollars to move people from shelter to independent living, but she still cannot get survivors of domestic violence into homes.

There are several ways to house people who are leaving domestic violence. Shelters are crisis housing and the stays are not intended to exceed 60 days. Transitional housing is usually low-income housing managed by shelters or nonprofits, and its cost is usually shared between the survivor and the program. The next step is either independent living, usually with the help of a housing voucher, or what is called permanent supportive housing, for survivors for whom independent living may be difficult because of a continued threat to their safety. It can come with security and a caseworker.

In Fairbanks, Carlson said, low-income housing has become even scarcer as landlords turn their properties into lucrative short-term rentals. There are two military bases in Fairbanks, and she said landlords often prefer military families to tenants that have housing vouchers.

“Landlords are kind of scared of renting to people that have evictions on their record, and may have a criminal record, or all of the above, when they can get a military person or a person with good credit to pay more and not give them any problems,” she said.

One of the manifestations of domestic violence is financial abuse. Often women leaving abusive relationships have no credit or bad credit, or no work or rental history if they were supported and housed by their abusers. They are often also the primary caretakers for their children. Things like evictions and criminal records, which can be the result of domestic violence situations, are often unacceptable to landlords.

In response to how tough it can be to house survivors of domestic violence, IAC manages 20 units of supportive housing. For people like S., a survivor of violence who lived in various emergency shelters for months until she could find permanent housing, the option is especially important.

“Saved my life,” she said, looking around the small apartment.

S. was in a lot of danger when she arrived at a shelter. The Alaska Beacon is not using her name for safety reasons. The door of the building locks, there is security and she has a key to her own door.

The walls of S.’s apartment are covered in framed artwork. A small bag of biscuits, baked by a neighbor, sat on her kitchen counter, and plants grew under a special light. A crocheted blanket and stuffed animals top her bed; on her bookcase were framed pictures of case workers.

Shelters are not easy places to live, especially for people like S. who live with medical conditions. She said she often considered leaving. “I had my backpack strapped to me, ready to hitchhike to Anchorage and couch surf until I could get a job,” she said. Her case manager convinced her to wait.

“Housing affects all areas of a person’s life”

Michelle Hicks, the center’s housing director, said managed housing works well for survivors, but it is difficult to run and there needs to be more of it. “You could probably double what we currently have, and it would still be full,” she said.

Hicks said IAC has been in the housing business for 35 years. Its first building, named after Carmen Door, who was shot and killed by her abuser, currently houses six families. Several more buildings followed, but Hicks said she still has to turn housing applicants away.

“We saw that one of the biggest barriers women had when fleeing an abuser, and it was particularly women, was safe housing,” she said from her small, paperwork-filled office in a residential area of downtown Fairbanks. The wall above her desk is lined with drawings and sparkly “thank you” cards from her tenants.  “I think there would be fewer deaths, and there would be fewer complex traumas, if the housing need would be better able to be met.”

Hicks balances Alaska state law, the federal Fair Housing Act, health privacy laws, federal Department of Housing and Urban Development regulations and the Violence Against Women Act to shelter a hard to house population. She has perfectly manicured nails and works nights and weekends.

“Housing affects all areas of a person’s life,” is printed in purple ink on the bottom of her business cards. Binders and filing cabinets full of paperwork line her walls. “It’s the single most important thing,” she said.

At the shelter’s annual meeting, she cried when she described a tenant who planned to move out of managed housing to her own place. Her voice cracked on the words “buy her own home.”

Hicks was emotional because she knew what that tenant was up against: For people who have experienced domestic violence, the barriers to housing include managing their trauma; convincing landlords to take a chance when they may lack rental history, good finances and a clean record; and a tight housing market.

She said month-to-month leases have proliferated in town and she thinks landlords do it to avoid housing people who use housing vouchers, which are for 12-month leases.

“You would be hard pressed to find a year lease anymore in this town,” Hicks said. “You’re not discriminating if everyone’s lease is month-to-month.”

Personal, safe space

A. had to wait for two years to get her housing voucher, but now she lives in one of IAC’s supportive housing units with her sons. Their artwork covers the walls, and a cat darts in and out of the room. She said it likely saved her life.

“I would have gone back to him and been beaten or killed,” she said.

For safety reasons, the Alaska Beacon generally does not identify victims of abuse by name, with the exception of people like Butler who have been public about their experiences and who agreed to be identified. The Beacon is identifying A. by her initial with her agreement.

A. tried to make her marriage work out, despite abuse. After leaving and returning to him multiple times, she said her family gave up on her.

“They didn’t like him. They didn’t like what he’s doing to me. And I kept going back to him and playing the game, and I wanted the family,” she said. “I can’t regret the time that we had because I had my son, but I just wish I wouldn’t have stayed so long. It’s never too late, but it’s really hard to find the guts to leave.”

She was homeless for two weeks before she sought services at the shelter. Then, she had to wait two years for a housing voucher that let her move into one of the apartments managed by Hicks. “Here, I got the code and it’s my place. Any other time I lived, it was his place. And he got to kick me out,” she said. “This is mine. Nobody can kick me out.”

Now A. has a job and can focus on rebuilding her relationship with herself. “For 12 years I gave him my all, and I honestly lost myself,” she said. “I didn’t know who I was, what I like — I still don’t,” she said. Her life was so built around pleasing her ex-husband that she said she is still figuring out what she likes to do, even what she likes to eat.

For A., the best part of the apartment is security: There’s a code to get in the building and a lock on her door. Now, she said, she feels “free, but not free” — because her ex is back in town after several years in prison.

“It was quite nice, because I didn’t have to look over my shoulder,” she said. “We’re getting along great now, but I never know when it’s gonna flip.”

She said she knows he keeps track of her still, even though she hears that he has new relationships and that his behavior has not changed — “He’s got another girl pregnant,” she said. “That girl has no clue what she’s getting herself into.”

Building for a safer future

From her light-filled office with the city of Fairbanks, Butler is working towards increasing the availability of low-barrier shelter in the Golden Heart City. She said greater access to housing and shelter can prevent women in abusive relationships from returning to their abusers.

“It makes a difference when it’s 40-below,” she said. “If people aren’t guaranteed a spot in a shelter, they will return to the abuser rather than stay outside.”

She is working to coordinate a housing solution that connects people who are homeless and addicted to drugs, as she once was, to emergency shelter and services to solve the big-picture problems of housing and sobriety. By 2026, she wants the city to have a complex for transitioning people out of homelessness.

And she said other entities are opening up, too. Fairbanks Help Link is a new overnight, emergency shelter. It isn’t housing, but a place to warm up so people don’t freeze.

But, ultimately, she said the city needs housing its residents can afford. She knows what it is like to have to choose between housing instability and a violent relationship: “I’ve been there, done that, got the t-shirt and the track marks to prove it,” she said.

Housing was critical to her success in ending her addiction, and stabilizing her family. She said her kids witnessed her abusive relationships, but they’ve also witnessed her recovery. She described her husband as a nice, decent man, and she said their relationship is stable — and her daughters see that, too.

“These things are important to heal the trauma,” she said. “And not have it pass on to the next generation.”

––––

https://alaskabeacon.com/claire-stremple

This article was produced as a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 Domestic Violence Impact Fund.

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