What happens when someone leaves shelter?


We’ve talked before on this blog about the process of arriving at shelter, about the myriad of emotions and hopes and fears and reactions that someone can have when facing such a huge step. But have you ever wondered what happens on the other end, when they’re ready to leave shelter? As one staff member puts it, if it were a movie, this would be the point when the credits rolled, right?

Survivors have many different goals when they come to shelter. Housing is often a priority, but it’s not the only thing. Nevertheless, it’s often a concrete thing to focus on, so our shelter advocates work with people to identify what type of living situation would work for them moving forward, and walk with them through the necessary application processes for public housing and transitional living programs, or looking for market-rent apartments. This is often a process of balancing what is desired versus what is possible. If your name has never been on a lease, if everything was in your abuser’s name, and/or if you have no income, a market rent apartment is virtually off the table. If you have a criminal background or a documented history of substance abuse, public housing options are going to be extremely limited. Immigration status or lack thereof will also be a factor for many people we work with.

Survivors can apply for emergency status based on their experience with domestic violence, but that requires that they demonstrate they’ve been displaced from someplace they were living for at least nine months, directly as a result of the abuse, AND it requires that they reported the abuse to someone – either law enforcement or a social service agency. They are not supposed to require a restraining order but some places ask for one. Even so, a housing office may decide that they don’t qualify. This can feel really invalidating to a survivor to have someone else label their experience – imagine, having experienced abuse and homelessness, and then having an agency tell you that you don’t qualify for priority domestic violence housing. So applying comes with that risk.

The other option beyond market-rent or public housing is a transitional living program (TLP). This requires a great deal of research, which our advocates often help with, because every TLP is different. Some are only for single people, some only for people with kids, some only for women. Location is also important, we want to balance the survivor’s need for longer-term housing with their need for social connectedness and mastery, so if they have a job, can they find a place to live that’s close enough and will allow them to keep that job?

Our advocates work with survivors while they’re in shelter to research all of their options, weigh the considerations listed above, and fill out applications. Often they will be notified that they’re on a waiting list which can last anywhere from months to years. For this as well as other reasons, a survivor’s time in shelter feels like limbo, you’re anticipating that you could be moving out within a few days, but at the same time it feels like it will never happen.

And housing is just one goal – they may also have found a job, or gotten enrolled in school or some type of vocational program, or be working on sobriety and getting connected with supportive services. They may have done work around their parenting, and getting connected to therapy or counseling services for themselves and/or their children. Many of the survivors who come into shelter haven’t had medical care in a long time, so we work with them to get connected to primary, dental, and eye care.

Taking all of this into consideration, the moment when someone finds out they’ve gotten housing is often a cause for celebration. But as you can imagine, that can be quickly followed by the reality setting in of the challenges that lie ahead.

In addition to the overwhelming emotions, there are logistical issues to consider. We have wonderful volunteers who often help survivors with the moving process. Finding furniture for a new apartment can be a big challenge – we frequently get offers of donations but because we lack the space to store it, we don’t often have things on hand. So an advocate or a volunteer will take a survivor to a furniture bank to pick out items to furnish their new space. Beds and refrigerators can be especially hard to find, and if you have kids, you can’t move into public housing without a refrigerator (they are not provided). We can also help with things like getting the kids connected if they’re moving to a new school district. Depending on the situation, living independently may need to involve a lot of safety planning, so we’ll work with them around that.

One survivor we worked with was excited to have a key ring, because she’d never had her own set of keys before.

With all of these challenges, from the logistics of furnishing a new place, to settling oneself and one’s family into a new community, to staying safe, to getting used to living alone when you’ve been living in a house full of people…you can understand how this isn’t the end of the story, but in many ways just the beginning. This is why REACH is committed to providing whatever ongoing support a survivor chooses. The shelter staff will reach out and follow up with guests after they’ve left, just to check in and see how things are going in those first few weeks and months. Some people do alright for a while, and then may encounter setbacks, like an abuser who gets out of jail, necessitating further safety planning. For those who need ongoing support, if they’re still in the area, they can connect with one of REACH’s Community Advocates. We often stay connected with past shelter guests through our Holiday Gift Program – which is always a treat, to reconnect, see how people are doing and how kids have grown.

While it would be nice to think that the credits have rolled and the story has a happy ending, we know that reality is often more complicated than that. We are grateful for supporters who allow us to provide the refuge of emergency shelter, as well as the ongoing work of community advocacy. We are also grateful for the donations of furniture and other home furnishings, while we don’t have a lot of storage space, it helps to have the option of offering those items to people. Gift cards also allow survivors to be able shop for themselves and choose their own home furnishings. For a full list of the items we can use click here.