Housing programs can serve as a lifeline for domestic violence survivors and their children – providing them with vital resources to leave abusive relationships and find safety. Various housing models are being implemented across the country; however, little is known about their long-term effectiveness.

A team of researchers from the University of Central Florida, University of Texas Medical Branch Center for Violence Prevention and University of Texas at Arlington plan to examine how domestic violence housing programs, specifically transitional housing, impact female survivors and their children and if they lead to safe, permanent housing and financial stability. The researchers also plan to make their results available through a database to help programs nationwide.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women awarded UCF the five-year $1 million grant for the project.

Bethany Backes

“Survivors report that one of their primary needs is housing,” says Bethany Backes, an assistant professor of criminal justice and social work and the project’s principal investigator. “A lack of housing can be detrimental to a victim’s safety and health; it can lead to staying with their abuser or turning to homelessness.”

It is not uncommon for survivors to return to their abusers because of financial reasons, needing a place to live or fearing retaliation for leaving, researchers say.

“One of the most common interventions society offers to survivors is domestic violence housing, such as transitional housing,” says Julia O’Connor, an assistant professor of social work and co-investigator of the study. “These interventions are necessary as one in five homeless women report domestic violence as the primary cause of homelessness.”

Meeting Needs

Transitional housing fills a critical need, typically providing support for six to 36 months, until survivors can secure long-term solutions. Over 600 domestic violence programs offer transitional housing across the United States. Some programs are co-located with an emergency shelter and provide support services on a single property site. Whereas other programs are scattered throughout a community, such as an apartment, and may require transportation.

Julia O’Connor

Backes says that domestic violence transitional housing programs also provide a continuum of therapeutic and supportive services, such as mental health counseling, healthcare, childcare and legal advocacy. These services address the needs survivors may have while working toward self-sufficiency.

“We will take a holistic approach with our data collection,” says Backes. “We set up our sites to have a diverse array of housing programs across the country, including a mix of urban, rural and immigrant and migrant communities.”

The research team will look at the domestic violence transitional housing models, types and availability of therapeutic and supportive services, and time spent in the program. They will follow survivors residing in transitional housing across five states: Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan and Texas.

This year is the pilot year. The researchers plan to conduct focus groups with a sample of survivors currently living in transitional housing and the agency staff who support them.

“We want to ask questions that we think are important to know at a broad level, but we also want to be asking questions that are important for the individual programs and agencies,” says Backes.

Starting year two, participants will be surveyed online or by phone every six months for up to three years to get a better sense of how transitional housing programs and related services impact survivor physical and mental health, safety and self-sufficiency. The project will also examine agency-level data from a national sample of domestic violence transitional housing programs.

“We are applied researchers and we want to give back. Our goal is to provide programs with useful information, such as what components are working well and which ones may need more attention,” says Backes. “We will use our findings to create a relational database for the Office of Violence Against Women and domestic violence agencies for planning and program management purposes in addition to providing data on survivor impact.”

UCF’s contributors include members of the Violence Against Women Faculty Cluster: social work Assistant Professor Julia O’Connor, sociology Associate Professor Alison Cares, criminal justice Assistant Professor Erica Fissel and social psychology Assistant Professor Jacqueline Woerner. Sociology Associate Professor Amy Donley ’02 ’04MA ’08PhD and nursing Assistant Professor Boon Peng Ng will serve on the project’s advisory board.

Backes is an assistant professor in the Violence Against Women Faculty Cluster Initiative at UCF and holds a joint appointment in the Department of Criminal Justice and School of Social Work. She received her doctorate in social work from the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Before joining UCF in 2019, she directed research and evaluation on violence against women and violent victimization at the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice. Her oversight led to the development of major initiatives on sexual assault forensics and case attrition, domestic violence homicide, and criminal justice and community-based responses to violence against women. She spent several years in the direct services, research and health education fields primarily focused on victimization and injury prevention.