Katie Licari | Black Voice News

Domestic violence was a factor in the situations of 9% of homeless people interviewed in Riverside County during the January 2020 Point-in-Time Count, the national survey measuring homelessness in the U.S. 

The survey’s definition of homelessness is broad and not only includes people living on the streets, but also, individuals who are without permanent housing, such as those living in shelters, in motels or in cars.

State Senator Susan Rubio (D-Baldwin Park), a self-described domestic violence survivor, is looking to address with her bill SB 678, the Unaccompanied Women Experiencing Homelessness Act of 2021, programs “specifically [designed] to help these survivors not fall through the cracks,” she said in an emailed response.

“Women who are on their own and unhoused face unique challenges. Many of these women are suffering homelessness because of domestic violence or previous trauma,” said Rubio.

A report by the Department of Health and Human Services in 2016, found 38% of all domestic violence victims become homeless at some point in their lives.

The Inland Region

The number of unhoused people in San Bernardino and Riverside counties increased as much as 20% in some areas between 2019 and 2020, according to Point-in-Time Count data. California overall saw a 28% increase in the homeless population.

In Riverside County, 9% of homeless people interviewed in the 2020 count said domestic violence was a contributing factor to their unhoused status. 

“Oftentimes, women are [economically] dependent on a partner, and so they will remain in an abusive housing situation because they can’t afford to live on their own,” said Tunisia Owens, the policy and advocacy manager at the Family Violence Law Center

Violence Against Women Act

Because of language in the Violence Against Women Act, said Owens, there is a shortage in data about homeless people experiencing domestic and intimate partner violence. 

According to the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department, unaccompanied women make up nearly 30% of the adult homeless population nationwide. These women are not eligible for family-oriented services living in family shelters. 

“Domestic and intimate partner violence-related homelessness looks different,” said Owens. “A lot of women’s homelessness is invisible because they are living in their cars and stretching their money to stay in motels.” 

HUD’s Point-in-Time Count, the federal standard for measuring homelessness in the U.S., is most likely an underrepresentation of the data, said Owens. She said this stems from the different dynamics of women experiencing homelessness.

A Lack of Housing and Shelter Options

In San Bernardino and Riverside counties, the unsheltered population increased in 2020 as much as 24% in some areas. Sgt. Celeste Neiman, an officer with the Riverside Police Department’s domestic violence unit, said the lack of housing and shelter options is just one of the ways domestic violence impacts the homeless population in the Inland Empire. 

“For many survivors of abuse, choosing to leave means that they have to start from ground zero to build up their independence and financial stability,” said Neiman.

In 2020, the most recent year data is available from HUD, there were 201 beds set aside for domestic violence victims in San Bernardino and Riverside counties. The beds in San Bernardino County were 94% full. 

According to Owens, many shelters around the state had to decrease their bed availability and implement other measures, such as quarantining at a motel, to minimize the spread of COVID-19. 

The HUD Point-in-Time Count recorded an increase in unsheltered people nationwide. It is important to note last year’s count was conducted before the global pandemic took hold in March. California had the highest unsheltered population at 70%. 

Participants of a candlelight vigil at Option House in San Bernardino gather to honor victims and survivors of domestic violence on Oct. 8, 2021. (Courtesy Jeremiah Hill,  Black Voice News)

“[Unsheltered women] are in a dangerous position,” said Owens. “There are no doors to lock on a tent so someone can come and take your belongings or sexually assault you.” 

More Funding Needed 

Owens says there are some steps that counties can take to protect homeless survivors. 

“Counties need to tap into health budgets and resources to really meet families before they hit a crisis.” Mental health counseling and substance abuse treatment in addition to increasing access to affordable housing are interventions counties could put in place, she added. 

“Domestic violence victims who don’t have resources are especially vulnerable. They either have to stay in an abusive relationship or become unhoused. That’s not a choice,” said Rubio. “We need to do better.”If you or someone you know are experiencing domestic violence, local and statewide resources can be found here or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

Katie Licarie

Katie Licari is a freelance journalist with Black Voice News. She has previously reported for CalMatters, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the LAIST. In 2019 she was a LA Press Club finalist in the New...