NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — After several nights spent sleeping with a metal bat on the side of her bed, Michelle McCullough said she reached her breaking point when her ex-husband came into their bedroom and threatened her with a knife.
“Things had escalated so much. But I think when he came in with a knife that’s when I realized ‘Something bad is about to happen’,” she said. “Because it just kept escalating from the threats to balling the fists, all these different things.”
Moments after, McCullough packed up a few things for herself and her 17-month-old daughter, picked her daughter up from daycare and went to the emergency shelter at the Weaver Domestic Violence Center in Nashville.
Like many fleeing domestic violence situations, McCullough said she didn’t have time to think about what was ahead. All she knew was she needed to get out. At the time, her relationship with her family had deteriorated and her only other option would have been sleeping in her car.
“Me and my husband were very isolated,” she said. “That’s one of the things about domestic abuse is that you become very isolated, and you lose the family dynamics, you lose the relationships, and you don’t even realize. I didn’t have that to fall back on. I had to go to the shelter.”
Becoming homeless was a worry that had crossed McCullough’s mind and is an all too familiar fear for many survivors.
According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, studies show between 22% and 57% of all women who are homeless report domestic violence was the immediate cause of their homelessness.
Over 80% of survivors entering shelters identify “finding housing I can afford” as a need, second only to finding safety.
How domestic violence survivors end up homeless
At the Mary Parrish Center in Nashville, Executive Director Mary Katherine Rand, LAPSW, said about 50% of women who reach out for help are either living in a shelter, out of their car or on the streets. The other half are still living with their abuser or with friends and family.
“Everyone is in need of housing because of that and really does not have other financial means or support services, or still feel like they’re really at risk and aren’t ready to be on their own yet,” Rand said. “That’s the population we serve.”
There is a list of reasons why domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness among women and children, and Rand said financial abuse is at the top of that list. Some studies show there are elements of financial abuse in nearly 99% of domestic violence cases.
“A lot of people just do not have the economic means to leave,” Rand said. “They haven’t been able to work, or all of the money has been controlled and they don’t know what’s going on with finances. That’s the biggest thing that we see, and that is really why people come to us.”
While McCullough said her situation was a bit of an exception, her concern was more focused on bills and rent payments, for which she was solely responsible. Rand said evictions and low credit are another common barrier when it comes to domestic violence survivors finding housing.
“That’s all because they’ve had to flee the apartment, or the abuser did something and really kind of left them in a bad place,” Rand said. “People that have $13,000 in evictions, people don’t want to rent to you. They don’t want to take that risk.”
While Rand said some landlords will overlook poor credit or misdemeanors, an eviction can be hard to get around. The Mary Parrish Center offers support through three housing programs, including coordinated entry, transitional housing and rapid re-housing.
Calls ‘have drastically increased’
Many people the nonprofit serves qualify for Section 8 housing, but with a lack of affordable housing available in Nashville, Rand said it can also be difficult to find landlords who will accept those vouchers. It’s a problem affecting many cities across the country.
“It’s great that we have this rapid rehousing program. HUD pays for the rental assistance, but it’s becoming very difficult to find units that are affordable,” Rand said. “We’ll look at other counties if that’s something the survivor is interested in. But even other counties are really getting priced out too.”
The process often starts with coordinated entry, where advocates help assess the level of danger an abused woman has of being killed by her intimate partner and their history of homelessness. Those who are at a higher risk often get housed first because of the limited space available.
“Coordinated entry has what’s called a ’by name list’ so the whole point is the community would know those who are experiencing homelessness by name,” Rand said. “When we first started out, there could be 100 to 150 households on that ‘by name list’. There’s currently 400.”
Rand said part of that is likely because of a rise in domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, when more people were stuck in close quarters with their abusers. However, increased awareness about available programs has also been a factor.
“Those things were all really exacerbated because of the pandemic. We had just started our coordinated entry that year before,” Rand said. “The calls that we’re getting have drastically increased, and then the number of folks that are in need of housing.”
‘I didn’t know what I was going to do’
McCullough stayed at the Weaver Domestic Violence Center’s emergency shelter for about a month after leaving her ex-husband. However, when she got a full-time job, she needed to be able to work from home.
“I had to move back in so I could have that job. That was horrible. I stayed there for about three months, and he threatened and did everything,” McCullough said. “It just kept getting worse and I remember me saying, ‘One of us is going to die, and one of us is going to jail.’ My daughter is going to lose her parents and that’s not fair.”
McCullough said she grew up in a “dysfunctional household,” which led her to normalize a lot of the abuse she was experiencing. However, she didn’t want the cycle to continue for her daughter. That’s when she reached out to the Mary Parrish Center.
She utilized the Mary Parrish Center’s transitional housing program, a longer-term, temporary housing option where residents can stay in one of 10 fully furnished apartment units for up to one year. During that time, the Mary Parrish Center covers all costs and utilities.
“The Mary Parrish Center was like a godsend because when I got my full-time job and had to move back in, it was the most gut-wrenching decision I had to make,” McCullough said. “Luckily in my situation they had the space because I didn’t know what I was going to do if they didn’t.”
McCullough said being able to have that space where it was “just quiet”, and she didn’t feel like “someone’s lurking” helped her get to where she is now, living under a roof in La Vergne. She’s since reconciled with her family and begun rebuilding her life.
“They really took the time to think about the things that when you’re in a hostile situation you just don’t have time to think about,” she said. “Because I left all my furniture with him. Everything that we had I left. I just took our clothes, her baby things, diapers, wipes and that kind of stuff. That was it.”
‘Take the help’
Rand said about 90% of people who receive housing assistance through the Mary Parrish Center are able to maintain permanent housing afterwards.
The Mary Parrish Center, which offers a variety of services to assist survivors with therapy, finances and workforce development, continues offering those programs six months after survivors find their own housing.
“It’s obviously incredibly difficult,” Rand said. “Most folks are dealing with post traumatic symptoms, possibly depression, anxiety, other mental health issues, so you have that and then if you do end up in a place of homelessness, you have that trauma on top of it.”
Working through that experience was incredibly difficult for McCullough, but she said, “It’s also very liberating.” Leaving can be one of the most difficult and dangerous times for survivors, but McCullough said she hopes her story emboldens others to take that first step.
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The Mary Parrish Center offers safety planning for people trying to leave abusive relationships and can help refer survivors to resources to aid with housing, even if space is limited. To begin the housing process, call 615-955-0620 to speak with a Coordinated Entry Specialist.
“There’s a stigmatism with households and the people that are being abused. You don’t want to look like that person, and you don’t want to ask for help because you don’t want anybody to know. But take the help,” McCullough said. “My pride got in the way for a little bit at the shelter. It was hard at first, but it will all work out. You just have to take that first step.”