Housing’s Role in the Cycle of Sexual Violence

March 3, 2021

The U.S. is experiencing a housing crisis. This has been true for many years, but the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the housing issues and has brought an issue often erased from mainstream news to light. Those who feel its greatest impact are those who hold marginalized identities; “Over 78% of people experiencing homelessness were people of color – General population of the U.S. is almost 74% White, 12% Black, and 17% Hispanic/Latinx” (Sexual Violence in Housing During COVID-19, RSP), according to one study. This is staggering and is clear evidence of the pervasive issues of classism and housing discrimination. We see this in the clients that we work with at our programs every day. The intersections between sexual violence and housing are crucial to acknowledge in our effort to end sexual violence and create safe and just communities. 

From data that was collected from N.C. rape crisis centers beginning March 2019 and shared in August 2020, the 2nd most requested need from RCC’s was support from the state in meeting the housing needs of the survivors that they are working with. Safe housing (or lack thereof) is a key piece in the cycle of sexual violence; “Many survivors of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment have complex housing needs. Experiencing violence can jeopardize a person’s housing, and experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity can increase the risk someone will experience violence.” (What Are the Links Between Sexual Violence and Housing?, NSVRC) 

I think there is an assumption that sexual assault survivors do not need housing advocacy as often or in the same way that those who are fleeing domestic violence do, but this is not true. Sexual assault survivors need safe housing advocacy outside of intimate partner violence. Perhaps they were assaulted in their home and being there no longer feels safe, or maybe their landlord is the person who assaulted them and/ or is exploiting them for sex if they are unable to pay their rent. Helping survivors gain access to safe housing after an assault occurs as part of their safety plan can have a profound impact on their healing journey. When we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, basic needs are the core of what we all need, and this includes safe and stable housing. That’s why I believe in the housing first model. How can we expect the survivors we serve to make their therapy appointments, have healthy eating and sleeping habits, attend medical appointments, if they don’t feel safe or comfortable in their homes (assuming they are not currently experiencing homelessness)? 

In thinking about the cycle of sexual violence in our communities, we must also acknowledge that being homeless and not having safe, stable housing is a risk factor for experiencing sexual violence. In one study, “One in five adults (19%) who are homeless reported being physically or sexually assaulted while homeless” (What Are the Links Between Sexual Violence and Housing?, NSVRC). This is a sobering statistic and the numbers are higher for those who are BIPOC, trans, and youth who have experienced child sexual abuse. If you are working with a survivor that is currently housing insecure, and experienced sexual violence, not being able to get them in to safe housing can increase their risk for revictimization. That’s why it is so important to have shelter accommodations available for sexual assault survivors. 

So what can we do to support the housing needs of sexual assault survivors?

  • Consider making access to stable housing part of your prevention strategy. When you’re doing outreach with your communities and thinking about which 

community partners to connect with about prevention education work, put those who work within the housing system on your list. 

  • If you have a shelter, hold space for sexual assault survivors who may need it. Or, set aside funds that can be used to pay for a hotel stay for sexual assault survivors, as many do not feel safe in shelter environments. 
  • Partner with local homelessness and housing organizations to educate and collaborate around meeting the needs of people who have experienced sexual trauma. 
  • It is common for programs to have relationships with Habitat for Humanity or Goodwill to donate furniture and things to those who have fled domestic violence and are moving in to new housing, how can these partnerships be used to support sexual assault survivors who may want to change their space/ furniture after they’ve experienced assault? 
  • Engage with your local and state government on the need for housing for sexual assault survivors. Advocate for more funding on this issue. 

I hope that we can all start to center housing needs when working with sexual violence survivors and understand the integral part that safe housing plays in preventing this type of violence in our communities. When providing advocacy, “do you feel safe and comfortable in your current housing situation?” should be a question we are asking all survivors. 

Resources to share with your community: 

Sexual Violence and Housing Infographics

Blog Post by Leah Poole, NCCASA Rural Sexual Assault Specialist