Written by Denise Miller, Firesteel Advocacy Coordinator
In the newest StoryCorps “Finding Our Way” story to hit the airwaves, a Seattle mom talks about her experiences with domestic violence and homelessness.
Zaneta Reid says her ex-boyfriend was abusive and tried to strangle her. After Zaneta’s testimony got the abuser sentenced to nine years in prison, members of his family threatened and harassed her. She fled her home with her four children, only to find the shelters full.
I encourage you to listen to Zaneta’s story, which airs during KUOW’s program The Record today. You can also listen online.
The story raised some questions in my mind, so I reached out to Doris O’Neal, who manages the domestic violence program for YWCA Seattle | King | Snohomish. Doris graciously invited me to meet with her and a team of advocates who help survivors of domestic violence. These amazing women answered my questions and reflected on Zaneta’s story; their insights provide some helpful context.
“After I testified, I started getting death threats and people coming by my home, throwing things. I mean, my ex almost killed me and now I have his family members telling me they’re going to do the same,” Zaneta says in the story.
I wondered how common it is for people who have experienced domestic violence to be re-victimized by people connected to the abuser.
Quite common, it turns out.
“Domestic violence is not always just a one-on-one; sometimes it’s a one-on-twenty. It’s a whole web that the survivor’s caught in,” one advocate told me. “It’s not just one abuser. Often the abuser has his supporters — family and friends — and they’re going to follow her the rest of her life.”
How can family members and friends take the side of someone who is violent?
People loyal to the abuser might not believe that the survivor has actually been victimized.
“Usually an abuser has a lot of positive qualities. To everybody outside, including his family, he appears to be a charming, great guy. Behind closed doors, she knows the real deal,” another advocate, who asked not to be named, told me.
Also, abuse might be normalized in the abuser’s family.
“It’s where he came from, and that’s what he learned. You learn to use certain types of abuse — mental, physical, economic, sexual, all those things — to maintain power and control,” the advocate said.
Survivors can file for anti-harassment orders against anyone who threatens them, but the orders cost money and time. (To be clear, this is different from a domestic violence protection order that can be filed against an intimate partner; see this chart from the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence for details.)
“How much time would she have to spend in court trying to get anti-harassment orders against his family? Instead of doing that, she flees,” Doris said.
Waiting for a safe place
“I started calling shelters and they didn’t have any space at that time. Each night we would have to find a friend’s house to stay in, and after two weeks they finally had space for me and the boys. After about four months, I was permanently housed,” Zaneta says in the story.
It’s typical for families fleeing domestic violence to find that shelters have no vacancies.
“Out of 10 calls, we turn away eight because of lack of space,” Doris told me.
This is a problem statewide. On Sept. 10 of last year, 54 out of 63 domestic violence programs in Washington participated in the National Census of Domestic Violence Services. The programs reported 489 unmet requests for housing on a single day.
Hundreds of women and families were turned away from domestic violence shelters; I wonder how many returned to violent homes.
The lack of resources is upsetting to me. I imagine it’s even more upsetting to shelter staff, who are in the position of turning women away daily because there’s no room.
“There are more dog shelters in the state of Washington than women’s shelters,” Doris said.
It can be particularly difficult for larger families like Zaneta’s to get into shelters; many spaces just don’t have the capacity to hold more than a few people.
Another complication sometimes arises when families include teenage boys. Some shelters were designed for women only, and have communal toilets and showers that are uncomfortable for teenage boys to share with women. Apartment-style units that better accommodate teenagers are scarce.
Zaneta “was lucky to get into a shelter with her 16-year-old son,” domestic violence advocate Maria Pintar said.
Survivors and “strivers”
Zaneta’s story has an uplifting ending.
“I wanted to give back, to help moms and ladies that are going through the same thing that I had just gone through. I tell them a little bit about my story and how it’s hard to keep that hope, but it’s not forever,” says Zaneta, who now works with families at Mary’s Place. It’s the same shelter in which she first found refuge.
People who have survived domestic violence and homelessness have a lot to contribute as advocates, says Doris.
“We really encourage survivors to be advocates. The rule of thumb is that they have at least a year to two years of their own recovery, so they won’t be re-traumatized dealing with other survivors’s situations,” Doris said.
One YWCA advocate who survived domestic violence said that now that she’s healed, she can see through different lenses.
“When you’re sitting with a survivor, you can see what she’s seeing, and you can also see beyond it for her,” the advocate said.
“If I was a client, and the advocate shared her story with me, it would give me hope to see that, not only did she survive, but she’s a ‘striver,'” Doris said. “Clients move toward being a ‘striver’ when they’ve been through the process — they’ve gotten domestic violence advocacy, counseling, secure housing, and community resources to help them overcome the ‘survivor’ role.”
Have the “Finding Our Way” stories inspired you to help families who are experiencing homelessness?
- Start by sharing these stories with your friends, family, and policymakers.
- Advocate for investment in affordable homes and programs that help our most vulnerable neighbors. Send a message to your state lawmakers using this template created by the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.
- Check out a list of 10 things you can do to help, compiled by Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness.
Hear more stories
- Listen to more “Finding Our Way” stories produced by StoryCorps on KUOW every Tuesday, now through July 7, or online.
- Find even more “Finding Our Way” stories, produced by Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness and Firesteel, here on the Firesteel website.
- Stream other StoryCorps conversations on the StoryCorps website, or subscribe to the StoryCorps podcast.