Many people experiencing homelessness in Austin say past trauma or abuse led them there

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Leaders at the Austin nonprofit SAFE Alliance say that as the Austin area talks about how to address homelessness, the ways that past trauma of abuse can lead to homelessness can’t be left out of the conversation.

SAFE Alliance helps to shelter around 200 people on any given night, offering help for those who have experienced sexual or domestic violence, child abuse, or human trafficking.

Melinda Cantu, the Vice President of Housing and Support Services at SAFE acknowledges that it’s tough to know exactly how many survivors who seek out SAFE’s services because not everyone wants to admit that they are experiencing homelessness. But in her three decades working with SAFE, Cantu confirms that a large number of the people seeking services with SAFE have experienced homelessness in one form or another.

“[Whether] that is couch surfing or going into a shelter — because when people are in our shelter, they are then homeless,” Cantu said. “That’s the reality, it’s not a permanent place to be and so there’s a large number, certainly, of folks who are fleeing domestic violence — even those who don’t come into our services — who experience homelessness.”

“The data is really hard for us to pull because people don’t always say [they are homeless] because there are implications for that, particularly with single-parent households or with children,” she clarified.

Numbers from Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) support what Cantu is saying.

According to a 2019 Coordinated Assessment by Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, 70% of respondents reported their homelessness as being connected to previous trauma or abuse. 39% of respondents said they had previously experienced domestic violence. (KXAN Graphic/ Ricardo Ruano)

According to ECHO’s February 2019 Coordinated Entry Assesment (the tool used by service providers in the community to track and index the people most in need of housing and help), 70% report that their homelessness is connected to previous trauma or abuse. Additionally, 39% report being a survivor of domestic violence.

“I think it’s really important for people to understand that those people that they see on the street, there could be a vast history of violence and trauma that impacts their ability to access that safe stable housing,” Cantu said. She feels that the connection between abuse and homelessness is especially important for people to understand at this moment in Austin.

City of Austin officials have made addressing homelessness a top priority in the city and public debate around the best ways to do just that have grown heated since the council voted to relax rules around camping, sitting and lying down in public.

“It’s really important for us to have in the public domain that conversation of what we do [to address homelessness] and how we do it and how we think about the people in our community who are the most vulnerable and need the most support,” Cantu said.

“A lot of people are talking about just the burden of the homeless, and they’re not really thinking about what has happened that may have caused the homelessness to begin with,” she added. “They may not be thinking about the crisis within people’s lives that may impact their ability to access and to stay in safe stable housing.”

The outside of SAFE Alliance is decorated in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month which is the month of October. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

Cantu said when she is talking with people around Austin, she often finds herself educating family and friends about how factors like being a victim of violence or abuse at a young age can lead people to become homeless.

She hopes that local, state, nonprofit and private leaders looking to address homelessness in Austin also talk about how to intervene in situations of domestic violence and how to support survivors.

“There’s so many of those folks who are experiencing homelessness who have the issues of violence and abuse in their history,” Cantu said. “We can’t have the conversation without both together, we really can’t, if we do, we’re really missing the boat in terms of what we can do to effect real change.”

If you or someone you know needs to get in touch with SAFE, you can call their 24-hour SAFEline at 512.267.SAFE (7233). You can also text 737.888.SAFE (7233) or use their SAFEline chat.

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