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Cruel cycle of domestic violence and homelessness in LA

شعار Al Jazeera Al Jazeera 27/09/2017
The most recent Los Angeles homeless count tracked a significant spike in the overlap of homelessness and domestic violence [Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images] © Provided by Al Jazeera The most recent Los Angeles homeless count tracked a significant spike in the overlap of homelessness and domestic violence [Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images]

Los Angeles, USA - Kalanie* and her boyfriend got into an argument one day when she wasn't at work. Her boyfriend was drunk - as he often was when he got angry, she said. She wanted to avoid a confrontation, so she went into the bathroom, locked the door and started to shower.

Then, she heard a noise. Her boyfriend had gone downstairs to get his toolbox, and was taking the door off its hinges. "He's not stupid, he's not going to kick down the door," she said. "And then he drug me out of the shower, got me out of the shower naked, and started hitting me."

Kalanie called the police, but by the time the cops arrived, her boyfriend had already put the door back on its hinges.

"And I was like, 'He really took the door off', and he was like, 'Oh, you know, women, they're just so crazy. Does it look like I took the door down?'"

The police officer left.

Months later, after another incident, Kalanie said an officer told her she was "too dark-skinned" to tell if her boyfriend had given her a black eye. Her eye was swollen, Kalanie said. "You could tell."

Not equipped for domestic violence

Kalanie is one of thousands of women who've experienced domestic violence in Los Angeles - a 2015 report found the Los Angeles Police Department went out on an average of 48,000 domestic violence-related calls a year. And, like many women who have fled domestic violence, since Kalanie left her abusive boyfriend four months ago, she and her four-year-old daughter have been teetering on the brink of homelessness.

The most recent Los Angeles homeless count tracked a significant spike in the overlap of homelessness and domestic violence - a 130 percent spike - but women's advocates and homeless service providers, like the Skid Row-based Downtown Women's Center say the number is actually likely significantly higher than that. 

Domestic violence can lead to homelessness, but it can also go the other way, women's advocate and Skid Row resident Suzette Shaw said. Many women living on the streets end up in abusive relationships, she said - sometimes as a coping or survival mechanism - even if they weren't fleeing domestic abuse in the first place.

"There's just so many levels of survival tactics that people are having to live with out there just to not be prey and not be vulnerable," she said. "People don't even necessarily know to go and say, 'I'm a victim of domestic violence.'"

Less than two months after Kalanie left her abusive boyfriend, she sat in front of a caseworker, her four-year-old daughter in tow, and laid out the entire story. It took several minutes.

Kalanie says when she finished, the caseworker reacted by saying, "'Oh, you should've said domestic violence. I can't help you.'"

It wasn't the first time Kalanie had heard that. It had gotten to the point where one caseworker had suggested that she lie - omit any details about being abused, and just approach the services system as a single mother seeking shelter.

Elizabeth Eastlund says that's relatively common. She runs a domestic violence shelter in Los Angeles called Rainbow Services.

"If we look at certain laws, homeless shelters aren't supposed to turn people away [because they've experienced domestic violence], but I think that certain organisations still do, because there's a fear that they don't have the same security systems that domestic violence shelters have," she said.

"So I think that's part of where the, 'We're not equipped to deal with domestic violence comes from.' They're not necessarily listening to the story in the way that, 'Can we help?', they hear domestic violence and they say, 'We can't help you.'"

There are police - like the officers who responded to Kalanie's calls - who aren't properly trained to deal with domestic abuse situations.

And then, Eastlund says, there's the fact the domestic violence services system itself is riddled with rules - many shelters have days-long holds where clients can't leave the shelter or use their phones. Some ban shelter residents from working or contacting their abuser, no matter the circumstances. 

That's how Rainbow Services used to operate, too, Eastlund says, until they realised that the onslaught of rules may be doing more harm than good.

"When you look at the rules shelters have - we're taking your cellphone, you have to eat during these times - we were creating the very power and control dynamic that people were fleeing. So we really broke those down."

The shelter staff realised that even its admission requirements - for example, that people be directly fleeing an abusive situation - were setting its clients up for failure.

"We were just kind of seeing this pattern of people calling our hotline over and over again and changing their story to be able to fit our requirements," she said. "So rather than setting people up to lie, we thought, 'Why don't we see, if we allow people to be honest, can we still serve them?'"

Rainbow Services is one of several shelters trying out a pilot programme developed by the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV), designed to find a better way to help people escape domestic abuse without ending up on the streets.

READ MORE: 'He stomped on my head' - Stories of domestic abuse

Leaving everything behind

When Terria Cooley found PCP (phencyclidine - a hallucinogenic drug) in the quiet suburban house she shared with her boyfriend, she waited a couple days, and then confronted him.

"When I did, oh my god, it was devastating," she said. "The hit was so hard that it broke all the cartilage here, in [my] face."

Cooley's ex-husband had been abusive, so she knew what to do: she took her son and left. But she found her life stripped from her - her home, her furniture, even her business. Like Kalanie, who's an accountant with her own firm, Cooley had her own business. But her finances were so entangled with her ex-boyfriend's that she had to take him to court to get money and control of the business back.

Many people fleeing violent situations leave everything behind - even, like in Cooley's case, their sources of income. But WSCADV is working on helping survivors to escape domestic violence without leaving their homes.

"There was this idea that survivors needed to flee in order to be safe," WSCADV housing first coordinator Linda Olsen said. "We found out that there were a lot of survivors who wanted to stay in their homes - minus the abusive partner. So it became about figuring out safe ways to get the abuser out."

The new approach reminded Olsen of her previous work at a domestic violence shelter, "Where survivors would say to me - 'Why did I have to leave? I didn't do anything wrong.'"

Staying put wasn't right for everyone, Olsen said. Many people needed the kind of extensive support that could best be provided through a shelter.

But for survivors who did want to stay in their homes, Olsen said, WSCADV's housing first programme helped them figure out ways to get financial support that would make that possible - without them having to enter the shelter system. 

People make a lot of assumptions about domestic violence survivors, Olsen said - about how much support they need, and what they are and aren't capable of doing. "But survivors don't come all in one size or flavour."

Part of making the system better-equipped to deal with domestic abuse, Olsen said, is about breaking down those assumptions, and teaching caseworkers how to handle domestic abuse cases, so they won't just turn women away.

"It's a huge training curve."

*Kalanie requested that her surname not be disclosed

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