WASHINGTON — Angela Washington first experienced domestic violence as a married woman in her 20s. Coincidentally, that’s also when she first experienced homelessness.
“I couldn’t take it anymore, so I took my children and went to safety,” said Washington, who is now 56. “I got [to a shelter] safely with my children and we were fine; we were pretty good there.”
But that feeling of safety didn’t last long. Over the years, Washington found herself in and out of homelessness — often racing the clock at shelters that only permitted 30-day stays. She also found herself in more violent situations.
“I ended up back into shelters because of that too,” she added.
Washington’s situation is not unique. On any given night, 882 unaccompanied women experience homelessness in the nation’s capital, and according to a report from the Women’s Task Force of the District of Columbia Interagency Council on Homelessness, nearly one-third of women reported violence was the cause of their homelessness or housing instability.
Furthermore, two-thirds of women with histories of violence and trauma reported at least one act of violence against them during their current period of homelessness or housing instability.
“Women are really vulnerable to continued violence while they’re homeless,” said Kristine Thompson, who serves on the council that led the report and is the executive director of Calvary Women’s Services in Southeast D.C.
“They’re vulnerable to violence on the street, they’re vulnerable to violence with domestic partners or intimate partners, they’re vulnerable to violence from family members, from strangers.”
Like Washington, 28-year-old Courtney Young found herself in violent situations while not having a place to call home. In one instance, a truck driver she paired up with beat her so badly, she feared for her life.
“I didn’t know if I was going to make it through that situation. And I did, and I’m grateful,” said Young, who first became homeless when she was 17.
Both Washington and Young are in a better place now. They are two of the 40-or-so women rebuilding their lives at Calvary Women’s Services.
The women-specific center, located on Good Hope Road in Anacostia, provides more than a bed and a hot meal for homeless women. Programs ranging from group therapy, to job training, to case management, to addiction recovery help the women who come to the center overcome trauma and prepare for a new future.
Unlike other shelters, there is no date by which the women must leave. That all depends on their readiness, although the average stay is a few months.
“I was so busy running; I’m always running. The race is over. No more running. Here at Calvary, I find that I can relax more — not be in so much of a hurry that 30 days is coming and I’m back on the street,” said Washington, who has been at Calvary since November 2017.
“We’re in unity here. Everybody is helping somebody here in this shelter, and that’s what I find is different here.”
Washington, who has lived in several shelters, said Calvary is a model for how others should operate. More women-only shelters with programs geared toward healing and rebuilding would be a tremendous help for others who find themselves in similar situations.
“Part of ending violence is helping women to acknowledge the experiences they’ve had, to be able to speak of them, to be able to begin to heal from the kinds of experiences that they’ve had,” Calvary’s Thompson said.
“And so really [we need to be] creating environments and opportunities for women to do that in ways that are healthy — therapy and other types of supports.”
Thompson hopes the task force’s report informs best practices for trauma-informed care in homeless services — especially when it comes to helping women. Young, who was badly beaten while homeless, says she still has PTSD from her experiences and can’t be around men without “freaking out.”
“We would benefit from mental health services and settings that are for women only — where they can feel safe with themselves and with others,” Thompson said.
Thanks to Calvary, Washington said she no longer fears violence.
“I’m free of that,” she said.
“The battle is over for me here. No more fighting, no more being scared. I can build my life here. And that’s what I’m doing. I’m building my life again.”