UMBC’s Nkiru Nnawulezi and D.C. community partners make the case for survivor-centered housing services

Published: Aug 25, 2022

An adult with long, thick, black hair and wearing a black suit sits on a blue couch next to a small white pillow with the words life written on them in cursive Nkiru Nnawulezi
Nkiru Nnawulezi. (Photo courtesy of Nnawulezi.)

In fall 2016 the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence (DCCADV) approached Nkiru Nnawulezi for her help collecting data on the experiences of domestic violence survivors in Washington D.C. She was eager to lend her expertise. 

“As a community psychologist, it is a dream come true to be able to do a study that community partners initiated, said they wanted, asked for, and would meet a particular need in the community,” says Nnawulezi.

Nnawulezi is an associate professor of psychology at UMBC and affiliate faculty at the Yale School of Public Health. Her research examines the factors that enhance equity in housing for domestic violence survivors, including survivors of color; queer and trans survivors; and those who are low-income, unhoused, experiencing addiction, living with HIV, or experiencing severe mental health conditions. 

She knew her first task for this major project would be to connect with community partners across D.C. to together identify the most pressing needs of local domestic violence survivors. 

Identifying the right question

Nnawulezi was already well-connected with a network of experts in her field, as associate editor of the Journal of Family Violence and on the editorial board of Community Psychology in the Global Perspective. She also serves as a research and evaluation advisor to the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence and Ujima: The National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community.

To begin this project she convened four round table discussions with scholars, service providers, and legal experts. This included participants from American University’s Washington College of Law Domestic Violence Clinic; Catholic University’s Columbus Community Legal Services and Families and the Law Clinic; George Mason University; Georgetown Law’s Domestic Violence Clinic; GW Law’s Family Justice Litigation Clinic; and Howard University’s Interpersonal Violence Prevention Program.

The meetings revealed housing as the most pressing issue facing survivors of domestic violence in Washington, D.C. The Virginia Williams Family Resource Center (VWFRC) serves as the central point of intake for families experiencing housing instability in the District. But many survivors seeking housing assistance through the center were not being housed. Understanding why and how this was happening became the purpose of the study.

Designing a community-based study

With a research question in mind and a research community established, Nnawulezi and Liz Odongo, DCCADV director of grants and programs, co-founded the Domestic Violence Action Research Collective (DVARC). To support this work, the collective received funding from the Center for Victim Research, through the Office for Victims of Crime within the U.S. Department of Justice. 

“DVARC gathers victimization researchers, advocates, and practitioners to design and conduct community-based research and evaluation studies to enhance survivors’ safety, build their power, and support policy and practice within multiple systems across the city,” says Nnawulezi.

The collective’s first task would be to better understand the VWFRC’s screening process, including the questions the center used to assess whether violence was the primary cause of current homelessness and survivors’ perceptions of the screening process. Next, they would determine how the screening process influenced survivors’ future decision making and experiences with housing support.

Over a period of a year, the research team connected with 779 clients seeking housing assistance and identified 291 of that group as having experienced domestic violence. Of that group, 101 agreed to participate in the research study. The final sample that participated in an in-depth confidential interview included 41 survivors. All were survivors between the ages of 24 and 52, and they were primarily Black, heterosexual, cisgender women. 

Survivor experiences

The team’s data show that domestic violence survivors reported numerous systemic and cultural barriers to access safe, affordable, and equitable housing in Washington, D.C. Of the 41 women, only 4 received immediate crisis housing assistance from the VWFRC, despite significant need. 

Survivors desired to be treated with more respect by staff, and get housing resource support that aligned with their individual needs. Instead, many women described treatment by staff as unfair or dismissive. A few reported bias incidents based on their race and class that made it increasingly challenging to ask for and receive services. Others reported not receiving services regardless of need, or having to return to the VWFRC an average of 2-5 times to attempt to become eligible for services. 

Staff were also not consistent in asking about or responding to safety concerns that survivors disclosed, participants reported. Some shared that they had experienced economic, verbal, and mental abuse, but because they had not experienced physical abuse they were not considered survivors. And some respondents who received assistance reported not having access to the additional financial resources needed to move. 

Making lasting change

The DVARC recommends that the District continue to fund sustainable community-based systems of support that are survivor-centered and trauma-informed, and that address the challenges already identified. To determine next steps, the DCCADV also convened an advisory group with survivors from the study to further review the preliminary data and provide recommendations for future advocacy and research studies.

“I believe that it is possible for us to have a city where survivors are treated justly and fairly,” says Nnawulezi. “I love being able to think at the systems level about what needs to shift to improve people’s lives. It’s an incredible opportunity to be a part of this group, in the city that I love, working with people that I love, and working to improve the lives of people that I am deeply committed to.”

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