A Safe Space for Survivors of Domestic Violence

A transitional housing program inspired by the Oxford House model helps domestic violence survivors overcome trauma and substance use.

Nancy Kline works primarily behind the scenes supporting a team of, as she put it, "far more skilled and important people in this effort than me." Nancy has been married for 38 years to a person in recovery and is one of those rare individuals who have never experienced dependence on anything, including tobacco, which she has tried on occasion. She refers to herself as a "normie"—that is, someone with no "lived experience" with substance use. Nancy says her husband considers her “the most non-addictive personality he’s ever met.” Her life with a person in recovery and her own personal history gives Nancy a unique perspective in which to support her team. She's is quick to make sure they receive the credit and kudos for what they've all been able to accomplish.

Nancy has held a variety of positions related to development in the nonprofit world, but her work with domestic violence survivors set the stage for involvement in the Recovery Association Project (RAP), a nonprofit group that provides at-risk populations with housing that is safe, supportive and affordable.

As Nancy began working alongside others with survivors of domestic violence in Oregon, she quickly discovered that given the available resources in her area, and exacerbated by the high cost of providing services, only about 20% of the total number of women reaching out for support and help actually received it. This didn’t sit well with Nancy and her colleagues because not only were they feeling powerless to help, they realized that the 80% who were not being served were most likely forced to return out of financial necessity to the environment where the domestic violence had been occurring. Nancy joined in with her husband and her teammates to find a cheaper and better way to provide housing and services to survivors of domestic violence.

They began establishing housing for domestic violence survivors based on a slightly modified Oxford House model. The program was so successful that county officials noticed, and asked if they were able to replicate the model to house individuals experiencing homelessness. Not ones to back down from a challenge, the team opened five homeless housing units for women and children who were leaving local homeless shelters. They knew too that although Oregon state officials were pleading with Oxford Houses to open their units to medication-assisted treatment (MAT) patients, Oxford’s 12-step programs balked at the idea because MAT patients were technically not drug free due to their use of either methadone or suboxone.

The solution was simple. Service providers created MAT-friendly housing in conjunction with RAP, which emphasizes accountability, responsibility and safety for others. The RAP manual states that:

"Life in a RAP house is about accountability and responsibility, not rules. Most of our members come from abusive environments with many, many rules. They have not had the opportunity to internalize the idea that they have rights and that with those rights come certain responsibilities. Given the chance, they will re-create the environment they know and understand—a rule-based environment. We want them to outgrow their past and internalize a sense of responsibility by insisting on responsibility."

Nancy and her team established three housing units based again on the Oxford House model but revised slightly. Nancy states that her team has found the MAT-friendly housing model to be the “trickiest” to manage, for several reasons.

The housing is currently for women with children only, which brings its own challenges. Many of the women are suffering from co-occurring mental and substance use disorders. Some are poly-drug users who continue battling substance use while engaged in MAT. Many of the women have significant trauma histories and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) coming into the houses.

Each woman has adapted coping skills that served her well on the streets and in the drug lifestyle, but those same survival strategies and skills are maladaptive and can be dysfunctional when applied to group housing settings. As a result, boundary and power control issues, and multiple medication management needs intermingle and create their own unique demands and approaches to resolve within the units. Add in the challenges of overseeing multiple children interacting in the midst of these homes, it is easy to understand Nancy’s point about “trickiness.”

It has not been easy, but the RAP team believes that the approach is working. RAP teaches the women in the houses how to mentor themselves and shape their lived experience into a tool for peer mentoring. Nancy states that this is perhaps one of the biggest challenges, because she believes it is incredibly difficult to bring women with serious trauma histories together with each other. RAP’s growing experience in MAT-friendly housing, coupled with the general tenets of Oxford House management, has helped Nancy and her team shape several key strategies for the houses:

  • All houses are democratically run. House members meet weekly to decide house policy, deal with house issues, pay bills, and work on interpersonal issues. RAP staff may attend meetings to provide support and requested information, but the house votes to make decisions. This gives house members a vested interest in the house and provides an opportunity for members to develop decision-making skills.
  • All houses are expected to be self-supporting. Members pay an "equal expense share," which includes rent, utilities, common household goods such as toilet paper or dish soap, and $15 a month, which goes into the system. This also pays for staff time in supporting and facilitating house business, which usually costs $380 to $420 per month.
  • All houses are self-managed. Intrinsic to the housing model is a structured program of house management. Housing for at-risk populations usually is "managed" housing. RAP believes in "self-managed" housing. This involves teaching house members how to run a financially responsible household, how to solve interpersonal issues, and how to become self-reliant.

The team believes this last component, "self-management," is key to the success of working with women with trauma and PTSD histories in this type of housing. RAP staff tries to remain uninvolved in the direct interactions as much as possible, providing instead guidance and trauma-informed care, as well as person-centered tools and strategies to the residents to help them along their recovery journey.

For all the challenges that these homes face, Nancy and her teammates knows that they are working. They see the progress and knows the barriers and obstacles each of the women face along their paths to recovery. But the most important aspect of any recovery or survivor home is not what the staff tells you.

It’s what those who come as guests tell about their journey from when they were feeling hopeless and often scared to look at themselves in the mirror, fearing what they would see in their reflection.

Chelsea’s quote provides the resident perspective. “It is nice to have a safe place to come home to. I know there’s not going to be fighting or unwanted people or drugs or alcohol. And we have the support of each other when we feel triggered or unstable in our sobriety. My kids, they love it.”

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Steven Samra
Last Updated: 04/19/2016