THE SUDDEN SPOTLIGHT on Massachusetts’ painfully strained shelter system – creaking under growing demand driven by new migrant arrivals – has mostly glanced past a group that was already struggling to find safe haven before the crunch hit “unsustainable” levels.

Survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse sit at the uneasy intersection of the system’s housing and welfare purposes. They are fleeing from unsafe conditions into the swamped shelter system, while also often needing additional social and mental health supports before they can try to break into the hard-to-crack housing market. 

“The landscape that is occurring right now is that it is really difficult to find affordable, safe housing for survivors,” said Esther Rogers, director of housing and economic justice at Jane Doe Inc., a state coalition combating sexual assault and domestic violence. “We’ve seen higher rents – and it’s not just for our survivors; it’s for everyone in society now – but it places an exceptional burden on survivors, especially the ones who have low credit, low income. And we have to take into consideration geographical locations, because we don’t want to go ahead and place a survivor in the same neighborhood or community where the violence took place.”

The process can be exhausting for survivors – not just the wait for an apartment, but getting into the system at all can feel like a coin flip. 

Maribel, now 38, left Florida after a series of abusive partners and violent interactions with her mother, who has a drug addiction. She thought her aunt’s house in Revere would be a safe haven for her and her teenage son, but soon saw warning signs of potential abuse. Just before Thanksgiving in 2022, she said she called state shelter services aimed at domestic violence survivors for almost two weeks, sitting on hold in her car with her three chihuahuas, sometimes sleeping in the vehicle with the dogs and her son. The first time someone picked up the line, she said, the call disconnected. 

“The weeks of calling and being on hold was excruciating,” she said. “That on its own was abusive.”

Finally, when Maribel was a hair away from turning around and going back to whatever awaited in Florida, a person finally answered the phone and provided information to apply for emergency shelter. She and her son landed at Brookview House, a supportive housing program for women and children experiencing homelessness. “When they brought us up into the apartment, we cried,” she said. “My hairs just stood up. It was like, we couldn’t believe it. We couldn’t believe that we were going to be okay.”

For survivors like Maribel – stuck in physically, sexually, and verbally abusive relationships for decades – the shelters’ non-housing resources are just as vital as a roof over their heads.

She was connected to therapy and staff are equipped to help with her anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. She is now in school to become a social worker, and her 17-year-old son is thriving. “I’ve never had so much love around me. I’ve never had so much love around my son,” she said. 

The need for emergency housing is so great that any opening typically fills immediately, said Deborah Collins, chief operating officer at Brookview. 

While during a less crunched time, the referrals would come to women and family shelters through channels that specify a history of domestic abuse or sexual assault, the shelter squeeze means Brookview is mostly getting placements straight from state housing services. The organization is often in the dark about why women and families coming in are homeless, or what kinds of support they’ll need. 

“The survivors we work with don’t always come through the doors where survivors generally come through,” Collins said. “They come through whatever doors they can access.” 

She reminds staff that “it’s the exact same people” being served, whether they come in through domestic violence and sexual assault support services or the Office of Housing and Livable Communities. Families needing emergency shelter are often dealing with “all levels of violence – domestic or sexual, or community violence.”

State data on the shelter program consistently reports domestic violence as the second most common reason for emergency shelter applicants. Of the 900 “front door” entries into the emergency shelter system between October and December 2022, 11 percent of them were there because of domestic violence. This is down, percentage-wise, from prior quarters where domestic violence survivors made up almost a fifth of all shelter applicants. But the overall number of those seeking shelter rose in the past years, and those who needed it for “health and safety” reasons rose to about 75 percent of all emergency shelter applicants, which includes recent migrants and asylum seekers further ballooning the shelter rolls.

Massachusetts is the only state with a “right to shelter” law, meaning it is obligated to shelter certain people who are not able to secure housing – primarily pregnant women and families with children. 

It’s an all-too-familiar refrain at this point that the people coming into emergency shelter are staying longer than they, or the state, would like. Families in shelter services during most of 2022 averaged about 430 days in emergency shelter, with some remaining in shelter for more than 3,000 days, though the maximum time in shelter declined to about 2,800 days later in the year as some long-term families left the shelter system.

Fewer than 500 households left emergency shelter during the last three months of 2022.

Because as crunched as the shelter system is, the blockages to leaving it aren’t really going anywhere. A WBUR and ProPublica report from late September found that thousands of state-funded apartments were sitting vacant this summer, due to disrepair or bureaucratic logjams, prompting a 90-day push to reduce the number of vacancies. The new conference budget ups from $20,000 to $30,000 over two years the HomeBASE benefit, which helps those in emergency shelter pay for expenses that could be short-term barriers to accessing housing.

“The Healey-Driscoll Administration is committed to expanding pathways for families in shelter to access long-term, permanent housing through programs like HomeBASE,” an Office of Housing and Livable Communities spokesperson said. “This is essential for addressing the demand on our shelter system and setting families on a path to success. We are constantly evaluating strategies to increase exits from shelter and make housing more affordable.” 

Even with those efforts, the state faces a grim 2.8 percent rental vacancy rate, well below a healthy 6 percent. For groups trying to get shelter residents ready to strike out into the rental market, vouchers and the available housing stock fall far short of the demand. And pressure to enter the housing market as soon as a voucher is awarded, to free up shelter space and avoid the voucher expiring, could mean shooing survivors out the door before they’re ready to go. 

“What that means for us is basically setting up a survivor to fail, which we try not to do at all cost,” Rogers said. “And we just try to make sure that they are aware of the other trade-offs so they can make an informed decision. But when you’ve been in a shelter system for 12 months or 18 months, then that [deliberation] pretty much goes out the window.”

A Moving to Work voucher pilot that Jane Doe Inc. launched offers domestic violence and sexual abuse survivors with longer stays in emergency shelter more housing choices, but Rogers said there were 57 applications for the pilot’s 50 vouchers in just the first month. And where would they go?

Even before the current migrant influx began, the system moved like molasses. A report from the working group shaping the new housing secretariat in early 2023 said about half of Housing Choice Voucher holders were not securing leases within six months, with about 150,000 people on affordable housing waitlists. 

At some level, Maribel said, the prospect of leaving the shelter space feels terrible, because it’s the first time she has felt stable and supported. But she just got her Section 8 voucher approval, and that means the house hunt has to start.

“I know that it’s gonna be hard,” she said. “I know that we’re gonna be searching … But I am very excited about having my own place. I am very nervous that I’m gonna be out on my own, but the kinds of things I’ve overcome in my life, this is nothing.”