Tuesday marks the end of October and Domestic Violence Awareness month, and Rasheedah Phillips, a 2008 Beasley School of Law alumna and the managing attorney for Community Legal Services, which provides free legal service to over one million Philadelphians, held the first workshop in a monthly series about housing rights and barriers for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors last week.
At the Community Future Labs on Ridge Avenue near 22nd Street, a small group of about five community residents gathered for the presentation.
Survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault struggle with maintaining stable housing and seeking housing, Phillips said.
“Housing is the stabilizing factor for everything,” Phillips added. “If housing is unstable, everything is unstable.”
The barriers that most survivors face in regard to housing include criminal records, evictions and financial issues. North Philadelphian survivors are not short of these barriers, Phillips said.
Survivors of domestic violence often also have criminal records, Phillips said, but that’s because many of these people act in self-defense against their abuser. She added that survivors struggle with financial issues, too, like poor credit and evictions, long after experiencing domestic violence or sexual assault.
According to the National Housing Law Project’s “Assisting Survivors of Domestic Violence in Applying for Housing manual,” survivors “often have criminal history related to self-defense, coercion, or duress.”
When a public housing group or landlord sees these types of reports, they are likely to deny these survivors affordable and stable housing, she added.
Phillips said the legal protections in place for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault often go unused.
“There are laws that protect domestic violence and sexual assault survivors,” Phillips said. “Most people don’t know this.”
The Violence Against Women Act protects domestic violence and sexual assault survivors from being denied housing because of criminal records, evictions and other events that normally occur in an abusive relationship.
This law only applies to those seeking public housing. People seeking private housing can still have their past held against them by their landlords.
There is not much housing protection for survivors in private homes, Phillips said.
The Philadelphia Fair Housing Ordinance provides a step by step procedure for tenants in private housing to break leases due to domestic violence incidents or sexual violence. A survivor may break a lease with proof of domestic violence or sexual assault without facing any financial consequences.
However, ordinances like this do not exist in many other places, so survivors in private housing can still be subjected to discrimination, Phillips said.
Survivors in public housing can be granted emergency housing transfers, but there are instances where transfers are denied, Phillips said.
If an emergency transfer cannot be granted, Philadelphia has only seven shelters in the greater Philadelphia area specifically for women experiencing domestic violence and sexual assault, including Women Against Abuse and the Lutheran Settlement House.
According to Women Against Abuse, there was a 50 percent increase in calls to their domestic violence hotline in 2015 compared to 2014, when survivors made 14,661 calls.
But they have only two shelters in Philadelphia specifically for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.
There is a reason most homeless shelters are occupied primarily by women and children, Phillips said.
There have been 15,751 requests for safety that had to be denied because of the lack of space in shelters specifically for survivors of abuse, according to the WAA.
The shelter at WAA provides survivors with 90 days of housing, food and emergency funds. The organization also provides transitional housing for up to 18 months in which survivors and their children can reside.
The Lutheran Settlement House also provides transitional housing for survivors.
However, domestic violence and sexual assault and under-reported due to fear and isolation, Phillips said, leaving these resources under-utilized.
Community residents in attendance were aware that domestic violence is a problem in Philadelphia, but were not aware of the barriers survivors face in regards to housing.
“My wife informed me [of the event], but I came to get an understanding of what’s happening,” said Herman Arce, 54, who lives on Sharswood Avenue near 24th Street. “I want to get more details about what this means and pass that information along.”
He said he and his wife wanted to learn more about the housing barriers for survivors of domestic violence.
“I wasn’t aware of the ground work and legal stuff,” said Geoffrey Volcovici, 25, a resident of Mt. Airy Avenue near Mansfield.
“There are resources out there available for people who are experiencing [domestic violence] and [sexual assault], as well as people who are experiencing housing issues,” Phillips said prior to the workshop. “This space is a resource. There are protections out there.”
In November, CLS will hold its second workshop covering housing rights for tenants in public and private housing.
“Housing is a basic human right,” Phillips said.
Kelly Brennan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: The Temple News initially reported in print that there are seven domestic violence shelters in the Greater Philadelphia area, one of which is run by Women Against Abuse. There are actually two shelters run by WAA. This story has been updated to reflect that.