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News / Clark County News

More than 15% of homeless in Clark County are fleeing domestic violence

Lack of shelter in county complicates efforts to build new lives

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: July 25, 2023, 6:04am
5 Photos
Kathleen Stevens of Hazel Dell is a self-proclaimed "shelter broker" who helps women dealing with domestic violence find safe shelter in Clark County.
Kathleen Stevens of Hazel Dell is a self-proclaimed "shelter broker" who helps women dealing with domestic violence find safe shelter in Clark County. (James Rexroad for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The number of people in Clark County who told local providers they became homeless due to domestic violence nearly doubled between 2019 and 2020, according to Council for the Homeless’ annual system data.

It’s stayed at that level ever since.

Advocates and survivors say once people fall into homelessness due to domestic violence, it can be hard to pull themselves out. And with the need for shelter greater than the county’s one domestic violence shelter can provide, a roof in Clark County is not guaranteed for those fleeing their abusers.

Council for the Homeless collects data from 39 local homeless service providers, some of which ask clients if they’d share the reason they lost their housing.

In 2019, 8.1 percent, or 299 people, accessing these services said they became homeless due to domestic violence. By the end of 2020, that rate jumped to 15.8 percent, or 561 people. The percentage of the total homeless population barely budged over the next two years as the total number of unhoused people rose. The rate dipped to 15.2 percent in 2022, but the number of those who said they were homeless due to domestic violence rose to 808.

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In reality, those numbers are likely much higher because they’re self-reported, said Michelle Bart, founder of the nonprofit National Women’s Coalition Against Violence and Exploitation.

The local numbers reflect an 8 percent jump in domestic violence incidents nationally during the pandemic, according to National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice.

The authors of the report said the pandemic likely exacerbated some triggers of domestic violence, such as unemployment, stress, financial insecurity and substance use as a coping mechanism.

However, Clark County has not added any shelter beds for domestic violence survivors.

YWCA, which operates Clark County’s one shelter for domestic violence survivors, currently has 10 rooms.

“It’s unlikely that if a random person called on any given day that we would be able to bring them into our shelter,” YWCA Chief Operating Officer Vanessa Yarie said.

The shelter has a 60-day limit for how long people can stay, which is common for domestic violence shelters. After those two months, she estimates about half the people who leave the shelter have no permanent place to go.

“There’s no affordable housing,” Yarie said, “so finding somebody a place to live in 60 days when they don’t have resources or limited access to resources is really challenging.”

YWCA will oftentimes refer someone to Portland because Multnomah County, Ore., has four domestic violence shelters. If someone can’t go there, they may go to other homeless shelters or live on the streets.

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‘You’ve got to try’

Kathleen Stevens, founder of the Vancouver nonprofit You Can STOP Domestic Abuse, said she gets calls at least once a day from people needing shelter. Some of those calls are from people who stayed at the YWCA shelter and need another place to go, she said.

The nonprofit helps people find shelter and other resources. The job can be hard. Stevens said the lack of available shelter for survivors of domestic violence is inhumane.

“In the winter, it breaks my heart because they call me and I know the shelters — they’re going to be full,” she said, “but you’ve got to try and find a place for the moms.”

Although her nonprofit has fundraisers and takes donations, Stevens, 81, sometimes uses her own money to help people fleeing domestic violence get a room for the night.

“I use my money to help people,” she said. “That’s my Social Security.”

She also collects clothing donations and buys gift cards to restaurants so survivors can get food for themselves or their children. When people leave their abusers, they often don’t have time to bring any of their belongings with them, she explains.

“Not everybody has a car — a lot of times they’ll just walk out. This happens in the winter. They’ll walk out or run out with maybe just slippers and their purse or whatever they have on,” Stevens said.

The lack of available shelter in Clark County for survivors of domestic violence discourages people from leaving their abuser, especially when the person has children, she said.

“When you’re a mom — and I know this,” she said, “you stay because you need that roof over your kid’s head.”

After someone leaves domestic violence and becomes homeless, it can be difficult to get rehoused again, she said. Financial abuse, where an abuser takes control of a survivor’s finances, is common in situations of domestic violence. High rents in Clark County add to the challenge.

Five years ago, Esther Thompson fled from a relationship.

She said she wasn’t able to get into any shelters in the area, including YWCA. For five months, she lived in her car — saving money and collecting cans to pay for food and laundry.

“If I would have been able to get into a shelter and not been so focused on surviving, I would have been able to get into stable housing much faster,” Thompson said.

Her son’s school had a homelessness liaison who was finally able to help her find stable housing, but her challenges didn’t end there. Her record of evictions and debt made it especially arduous to find permanent housing.

She’s been in stable housing ever since, but she’s still digging herself out from the debt.

Stevens said financial abuse is common in relationships of domestic violence and contributes to homelessness.

“You may have been really responsible with money,” she said. “The next thing you know, you’re coming home, giving your paycheck, and then your name isn’t on the account anymore. You have no access to cash.”

Yarie said more local shelters would always be helpful — YWCA is adding four rooms to its shelter — but she worries about survivors finding stable housing after those 60 days are up.

Getting into a domestic violence shelter makes people feel safe in a way they would not feel living on the streets, Stevens said. Survivors often want to go to domestic violence shelters because they can offer relevant resources and often take extra safety precautions to protect people who could be on the run from their abusers, she said. She hopes more shelters for survivors will open in Clark County.

“They tell the women, ‘Why didn’t you just leave?’ ” Stevens said. “Where is she going to go?”

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.