There was a day about two years ago when Erica walked into her local YMCA and broke down in tears.
Her ex-husband, who for years had controlled her money, her movements, whom she talked to and what thoughts she could express, was finally out of their southern New Hampshire home. So was the gun he had recently taken to storing under the bed.
She changed the locks on the doors, but she still didn’t feel in control. He had canceled the electricity. He had been the family’s source of income and now he was gone and he wasn’t paying child support.
Erica had three children to care for — the oldest with a disability that required extra time and attention — no job, no money to pay for food, and the lights were about to go off.
“It’s a horrible feeling, as a parent, to feel like you can’t provide for your children,” said Erica, who asked that only her first name be used because she is a victim of domestic violence. “Coming off the heels of all of that, you’re just not in a place where you can make any super clear decisions about your future. You feel like you’ve been hit by a bus.”
Every year, hundreds of women like Erica escape abusive situations in New Hampshire only to find themselves with no money and nowhere to live. Many turn to the state’s 12 domestic violence shelters, but even as the rate of domestic violence decreases in New Hampshire, at least by some measures, the shelters are overwhelmed. They are forced to turn away more people than they can house.
In 2016 and 2017, the most recent years for which data was available, 561 women, 403 children and eight men took refuge in the 12 shelters, according to a new report from the state’s Domestic Violence Fatality Review Committee. During that same time period, the shelters turned away 4,437 people.
“We hear from survivors that the choice they face, with children in tow, is: Do I go back to an abusive relationship where there’s a roof over our heads or do I become homeless?” said Lyn Schollett, executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. “We certainly know plenty of folks who live in their car, and there are plenty of folks who feel their only option is to go back to the abuser.”
But despite the extreme shortage in domestic violence beds, advocates say they don’t want to see more shelters built — they want to change the model.
Behind a network of security cameras and locked doors, there are three bedrooms in the RESPONSE domestic violence shelter in Berlin.
One is for a single person. One can sleep a mother and two small children. The third can fit a larger family. The women, children, and occasionally men, who escape to the shelter might spend months there — sharing a kitchen, living space, and one bathroom with other families — before building up the financial and physical security to find permanent housing.
It is the only domestic violence shelter in Coos County’s 1,795 square miles.
“Just coming into the shelter is so traumatizing. You’re uprooting yourself and your kids and coming into a strange place,” said Deb Haynes, program director of the RESPONSE shelter. “Shelter is going to be the last-case scenario, because if they get more support — with us and their family and friends — they’ll probably be safer.”
But for survivors in extreme situations without a family option, or who need to stay in their community to maintain a job or keep children in school, there are few options.
RESPONSE will pay for a hotel room in order to get a victim out of a dangerous situation overnight, but the state’s affordable housing crunch, combined with the financial control abusers often exert, makes it difficult for women fleeing domestic violence to find a place of their own.
“I would like to see an expansion, but I would like to see the shelter services be different than what is happening with the current shelters,” Haynes said. “People would do better if they had their own space to go into rather than a shared space.
But “it would take money to be able to do that,” she added.
Erica’s landlord understood her situation and wasn’t going to throw the family out onto the street, but she needed a long-term plan.
She turned to Bridges: Domestic & Sexual Violence Support in Nashua. It operates a domestic violence shelter that can house up to five families — with shared facilities — but it is also one of only two shelter programs in the state that receives a federal grant from the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women to provide housing vouchers to domestic violence survivors.
Women receive rental assistance for two years. The share paid for by the grant slowly decreases as they become more financially self-sufficient with the help of Bridges’ employment and budgeting assistance.
During the eight years the program has received the grant, 98 percent of the women who received rental assistance have maintained stable living conditions and have been able to support themselves and their families, said Dawn Reams, the executive director of Bridges.
Each $300,000 DOJ grant only lasts three years, though. “Every three years when we have to apply I really hold my breath, because I’ve been here 21 years and it’s the most successful program we’ve ever operated,” Reams said.
Advocates would like to see housing assistance programs take on a much bigger role in the response to domestic violence, thanks to success stories like Erica’s.
She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in social work at the University of New Hampshire and preparing to open a trauma-informed Crossfit program called StrongHer, in partnership with Reebok.
Her oldest son, who was nearly nonfunctioning while she was living with her ex-husband, is now able to attend high school classes. She can provide for her family and advocate for others.
“All these things that I could never have imagined, they would never have been possible without the transitional housing program,” Erica said.