Change the Narrative: Addressing Gaps and Barriers for Sexual Assault Survivors Seeking Housing Services

Change the Narrative: Addressing Gaps and Barriers for Sexual Assault Survivors Seeking Housing Services

by Suzanne Marcus, Cloudburst Group Gender-Based Violence and Housing Specialist, and Laura Kovach, Cloudburst Group Gender-Based Violence and Public Health Specialist

Cloudburst experts in the GBV practice area are committed to promoting effective solutions to domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and human trafficking to ensure that survivors benefit from the programs and resources available.

When we say the words sexual assault or sexual violence, what comes to mind? Is there an image of a type of survivor or type of perpetrator? How old are the survivors? Where did the assault occur? What resources and support does the survivor need? Unfortunately, the dominant narrative of sexual violence continues to focus on single, young, white survivors who were assaulted in high school, on their college campus, or by a stranger. The story creates headlines, but it also creates misconceptions. 

Within response systems, there is often a lack of understanding about the trauma of sexual violence and an enduring misperception that sexual assault survivors do not need services beyond the immediate crisis response. This narrative reflects just one aspect of sexual assault and not the cascading impact of sexual assault for survivors who lack access to safe housing and financial resources and/or encounter barriers as a result of racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other forms of oppression.   

Decades of research about sexual violence response and prevention show that sexual violence is experienced across a lifespan, occurs in all locations, and doesn’t discriminate based upon race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, ability, or relationship status. The persistent dominant narrative impacts the ability of victim service providers, housing programs, and other human services to provide survivors with holistic, trauma-informed, equitable, and survivor-centered care, including effectively addressing survivors’ safe housing needs. The actual statistics paint a far more diverse picture of survivor’s experiences, for instance: 

  • More than 7% of women who experienced rape needed housing services
  • 25% of adults who are homeless experienced child sexual abuse
  • 19% who are homeless reported being physically or sexually assaulted while homeless.
  • 55% of sexual assaults take place at or near a victim’s home. 

Sexual assault survivors encounter a variety of gaps, including barriers to safe housing. For instance, some providers may screen out sexual assault survivors because they are seen as outside the purpose area of domestic violence housing programs. Many survivors seeking housing resources encounter a homeless coordinated entry system that is not trauma-informed or that does not prioritize for housing sexual assault survivors in the same way it prioritizes domestic violence survivors fleeing or attempting to flee violence. Sexual assault survivors struggle to access housing in environments where failing to do so can mean re-victimization of sexual violence and/or sexual harassment, and even finding housing can be perilous: in a study of 100 low-income women living in public housing or participating in the Section 8 voucher program, 16% had experienced sexual harassment or other problematic sexual behavior from a landlord.  

How can we change the narrative, close the gaps, and increase trauma-informed care for survivors of sexual assault who need housing services? 

  • Housing programs and victim service providers can engage in regular training and technical assistance to increase understanding about the dynamics of sexual harassment and sexual violence and reduce discrimination against the full diversity of survivors.
  • Housing programs and victim service providers can review and update policies, procedures, and training to ensure that they include sexual assault survivors. For instance, appropriate safety planning and housing referrals should be available for sexual assault survivors who attempt to access housing through a domestic violence program.  
  • Housing programs can incorporate safety for sexual violence survivors experiencing homelessness during into their intake process by adjusting physical spaces and conducting a risk assessment to develop an appropriate safety plan. 
  • Continuums of care, networks that provide comprehensive services to people experiencing homelessness, can ensure that their coordinated entry process is trauma-informed by engaging in specialized training and technical assistance, and partnering with community sexual assault advocates.
  • Housing programs can establish a relationship with a local rape crisis hotline and/or sexual assault services and convene regularly to discuss current trends, challenges, community resources and opportunities for partnership. 
  • Housing programs and Continuums of Care can connect with state sexual violence coalitions to obtain about training, tools, and resources. 
  • Housing programs and victim service providers can learn about sexual harassment in housing and how to file a complaint with HUD.
  • Service providers can offer choices. The path to reducing risk is highly individualized and each survivor’s ideas may look different. 

Learn more about how to address the housing needs of sexual assault survivors through these available resources:

[1] Basile, K.C., Smith, S.G., Chen, J., & Zwald, M. (2020). Chronic diseases, health conditions, and other impacts associated with rape victimization of U.S. women. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. 

[2]  Wilder Research (2016). Homelessness in Minnesota: Findings from the 2015 Minnesota Homeless Study. Wilder Research

[3]  Wilder Research (2016). Homelessness in Minnesota: Findings from the 2015 Minnesota Homeless Study. Wilder Research

[4]  Rape Abuse Incest National Network (RAINN) 

[5]  Breiding, M.J., Chen J., & Black, M.C. (2014). Intimate partner violence in the United States – 2010 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

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