Building a new emergency housing system that would accommodate the privacy needs of victims of domestic violence in Connecticut has been complicated, frustrating work.
When a person who is homeless is seeking to be housed, their name, age, and other details are entered into something called the Homeless Management Information System, or HMIS. This data is then used to direct people toward appropriate housing, and it’s a big part of why Connecticut is on track to ending chronic homelessness—the most pernicious kind—by the end of the year.
But the Violence Against Women Act, which was signed into law in 1994, contains some strict confidentiality restrictions to protect victims of domestic violence. When a woman—and it’s usually a woman—escapes domestic violence, her first concern is safety. Part of that safety for many includes safe housing and the resources to maintain that housing, said Catherine Zeiner, executive director of Safe Futures, a New London-based organization that works with victims of domestic violence.
So if you can’t safely enter a woman’s name into an all-important housing system, how do you get that woman housed?
The feds certainly didn’t know. On one telephone conversation with federal officials, the “noes” to suggestions from Connecticut advocates were coming so fast that Zeiner removed her shoe and slammed it against the floor.
“It was a kitten-heel pump,” said Zeiner, laughing. “I’m too old for stilettos.”
So Connecticut advocates came up with an innovative workaround. The barest of information is entered into the system until the last possible moment. For example, rather than include the number of children belonging to a woman seeking housing, the system records that the woman needs a two- or a three-bedroom apartment, said Karen Jarmoc, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence. This allows women to be housed quickly and efficiently.
Other states are taking notice, said Lisa Tepper Bates, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness. In July, Jarmoc spoke at the National Alliance to End Homelessness about Connecticut’s new system.
According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, on a single day in 2015, more than 31,500 adults and children left domestic violence for a domestic violence emergency shelter or a transitional housing program. But 12,197 requests went unmet because of a lack of funding, staffing, or other important resources. Of those, 63 percent of unmet requests were for housing.
“To have entirely two separate systems is inefficient from a public policy perspective, and it’s just silly,” said Zeiner. She says the state continues to work out the kinks.
“With any electronic system, once the information is there, you can’t call it back,” said Zeiner. “A survivor’s experiences often evolve and change. One day she may be fine and the next day something happens and she’s at high risk and we need to keep her safe. The downside is we still haven’t figured out how to keep survivors out of the system. Once she gets matched [to housing] she goes into the system, and I have twinges of concerns about that. That will be the next piece that we’ll have to think about.”
Jarmoc is hopeful.
“I think we’ve built an element of trust and collaboration over the past four years and we’re absolutely vested,” she said. “We’re coming at this from different places, with different experiences. We have that shared interest in ensuring sustainable, affordable housing. We’re guinea pigs here. But we’re committed to trying this and being thoughtful about it.”
Susan Campbell is a distinguished lecturer at the University of New Haven. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.