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How Domestic Violence Can Lead to Homelessness

Homeless woman
Image courtesy Arty Smokes
A homeless woman sits on a street corner. Advocates say many women find themselves homeless because they're trying to flee domestic violence.

How Domestic Violence Often Leads to Homelessness

It's National Homelessness and Hunger Awareness Week, and the local non-profit SafePlace is hosting a discussion this afternoon about the relationship between domestic violence and homelessness. 

SafePlace's director of community education Karen Wilson is a survivor of abusive relationships, and has experienced homelessness.  She told KUT News that women can put themselves at risk if they leave an abusive relationship without a game plan. Here's our conversation:

KUT News: What is the relationship between domestic violence and homelessness?

Karen Wilson: What we very clearly know right now is that for a large majority of homeless women, domestic violence is actually the primary reason for their homelessness, contrary to what many people think.

KUT News: What do you mean by that? What do many people think?

Wilson: I think often times when people see homeless women on the street, the first thought that comes to mind to them is that they're lazy, or they don't want to get a job, or that there are drug or alcohol problems, or mental health challenges. I'm not saying that doesn't happen. But it is contrary to what we actually know about the problem.

KUT News: Can you give an example of that?

Wilson: How about if I use myself?

KUT News: Please do.

Wilson: Often times what happens for survivors, is in order to flee the abuse, survivors will need to leave the residence. The issue is two-fold. On one end of the spectrum is that while there are shelters available in this country, often those shelters are full, and they literally do not have space for individuals fleeing domestic violence. On the other end of the spectrum is that in our country, we do not have affordable housing for people.

In an effort to get away from an abusive partner, if survivors cannot get into shelter, then they need to be able to access affordable housing. That is not always a possibility.

In my particular case, my level of danger was such that I had to leave the area that I lived in and went into deep, deep hiding. What that meant was that I moved from place to place, and from person's home to person's home, sometimes living out of my car and my suitcase. That was an attempt to stay one step ahead of my perpetrator.

Even though we may be staying with a friend or a relative or we may be sleeping in our car, we're still homeless.

KUT News: I’m sorry you had to go through that.

Wilson: I am too, but for me, the reality that I survived that and came out the other end. I'm a better person as a result of it. In many respects, it really helped me understand the blessings I have in my life, and gave me an understanding to do what I do today.

KUT News: What are the options for a woman in an abusive relationship who is afraid of becoming homeless?

Wilson: I think that's only one thing that survivors are afraid of, and that's the complexity of the issue. Probably the most common question people ask me is, "Why does she stay?" or, "Why does she keep going back?" When I hear people ask me that question, two things come to mind. The first being that people are under the misconception that to leave an abusive relationship means the violence is going to end. That's a fallacy. What we actually know is that leaving an abusive relationship for many survivors, it's not going to get better. It's going to get worse. This notion that people have that if you just leave it's going to get so much better is absolutely untrue.

The second thing I know about that "Why does she stay?" question is that often people who ask that of me think that leaving an abusive relationship is the same as leaving a non-violent relationship. The reality is they're apples and oranges. In no form or fashion are they anywhere near the same.

As a survivor, I can tell you, I grew up with family violence. I'm a survivor of multiple abusive relationships. I'm a survivor of rape. I have lived through so much, and I am a very strong person. The hardest thing I have ever done in my life was trying to get out of this last abusive relationship. We were not married and we did not have children and it was still incredibly difficult.

To get out of an abusive relationship successfully, where you do not get hurt or murdered, requires forethought, planning, resources, and support. The reality is that a lot of survivors don't have that because their perpetrators have specifically targeted those things.

KUT News: If anyone is interested in getting involved to help with your efforts at SafePlace, what can they do?

Wilson: Oh absolutely. I want to say two things about that. Anyone who wants to join us in our struggle, we absolutely welcome and need your assistance. I would tell you to give us a call at 512-267-SAFE, or to get on our website at

I would also say if there's anyone out there who is being hurt by somebody that tells them they love them, please give us a call at 267-SAFE or visit our website.

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion-dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on X @KUTnathan.