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Empowering Survivors of Domestic Violence: Q&A with Mary Reardon Johnson
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Mary Reardon Johnson, Executive Director of the YWCA of Western Massachusetts, talks with HRC’s Katrina Crotts. She shares how her organization provides safe and secure shelter for women and children fleeing domestic violence. Thirty-nine percent of cities surveyed in 2007 cited domestic violence as the primary cause of family homelessness (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2007). Mary emphasizes the importance of empowering women as survivors, not victims, and of recognizing each woman’s unique strengths and resources.
Q: Domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness for families.  How does your organization serve women and children experiencing homelessness as a result of domestic violence?

The field tends to have services for people who are homeless in general, and separate services for people who are homeless because of domestic violence. It is something we struggle with in our organization. Our services were created to respond to the issues of battered women and children and not necessarily around issues of homelessness, although they do merge.

Some women who are seeking safety do not have resources. They have exhausted friends and family, do not have friends and family, or are not safe with friends and family. They do not have a safe place to go. This is the basis for domestic violence shelters. To be eligible for our shelter you must be a woman who is in imminent danger. We also understand that there are women who are not in imminent danger, but are still homeless because of domestic violence. As time goes on, that line blurs much more for me. While many battered women shelters have a clear delineation between the two, we are seeing them blend much more.

Q: What are the challenges of serving women and children experiencing homelessness as a result of domestic violence?

In the past six months we have seen a jump in the request for services. In 2004, we opened a 48-bed shelter in Springfield, MA, which is the largest domestic violence shelter in New England. When we built the shelter, we tripled our capacity. Before, we had a much smaller shelter and we were turning away 3 out of 4 women who called us. Now, we have to turn away 5 out of 6 women who call us, and next year’s statistics will be even worse. Right before the holidays we saw a 30% increase in request for services.

We are also seeing more undocumented women. Often in these domestic violence situations with children, the abuser has total control and the woman cannot go back to her country with her child without his permission. We are also going to see more women with dual-diagnosis and mental health issues as community-based mental health services are reduced.

My greatest frustration is that women in the greatest danger are still not seeking services. We have to work smarter and better to make sure there are safeguards in place in the community for women and children at risk.

Q: What is causing the dramatic increase in demand for services?

We assume that it has to do with the economy and the stressors it places on individuals. We know that women are staying at the shelter longer because there are no safe and affordable housing options at the other end. Therefore, there are fewer available beds. We also know that women are staying longer than they did in our old shelter because we are offering more services and the shelter is respectful of their needs.

Q: Could you share a success story?

In our new shelter, women feel much safer. We have also doubled the amount of women coming in with children. Most of the residents are children and we are providing clinical services for children who have witnessed violence. We have also developed a special area for teenagers. On July 24, 2009 we will begin building 28 units of supportive housing. Eight will be for teen parents, and the rest are studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom apartments. They are meant for women coming out of shelter, teen mothers who age out of the shelter, and also for women who are relocating to their community from jail.
Our focus is survivor-oriented, rather than victim-oriented. In our shelter, we have a sign that says, “If you are here, you are no longer a victim. You are a survivor.” At the YWCA, we work to empower women, and celebrate the uniqueness of each woman.  We believe that every woman is quite capable of taking care of herself and her children if given the opportunity.

Click here to visit the website of the YWCA of Western Massachusetts.

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