The Family Violence Prevention and Services Act expressly prohibits domestic shelters that receive federal funding from turning away survivors for using substances or having a substance use disorder (or any other medical condition for that matter). And yet, it still happens.
“Oftentimes, people who have substance use disorder are excluded from services they need because of the ongoing stigma surrounding substance use disorder,” says Miriam Komaromy, MD, an addiction medicine specialist and a member of the American Society of Addiction Medicine board of directors. “A lot of programs that are set up for protection from domestic violence simply are not set up to deal with substance use disorder as a co-occurring problem.”
It’s an unfortunate reality, considering the connection between intimate partner violence and substance use disorder. Lots of survivors turn to alcohol and drugs to cope with the stress and trauma of abuse. Others are coerced into using drugs and alcohol by an abuser.
“Interviews that we conducted in 2019 revealed that experiences of substance use coercion, substance use and domestic violence are incredibly pervasive and remain hidden or underreported because of stigma and the (often accurate) fear of not being able to access needed services and resources,” says Gabriela Zapata-Alma, director of policy and practice for domestic violence and substance use with the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health.
“At the same time, while available evidence points to integrated services being uniquely effective for survivors of substance use coercion, collaborative or integrated DV/SU services are rare, largely due to insufficient resources.”
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But that doesn’t mean survivors should let a substance use disorder keep them from getting the help they need to escape an abuser. There are options.
What to Do If You’re Turned Away
First, let’s start with what not to do in the event you’re turned away from a shelter for having substance abuse issues. Resist the temptation to return to an abuser, even if that abuser promises to take care of you, provide you with drugs or alcohol or will help you get clean.
“Survivors often end up back with an abusive partner when a shelter turns them away or exits them, often facing even more danger than before they left,” Zapata-Alma says.
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Instead, try one of these avenues for finding a safe place to stay:
- Ask if the shelter offers hotel vouchers you can use to stay off site.
- Ask to speak with a domestic violence advocate. “While it’s completely understandable that someone might feel awkward about asking to meet with a an advocate after being turned away or exited from a shelter, community-based domestic violence advocates are uniquely prepared and qualified to offer resources and support to survivors,” Zapata-Alma says. “They are an important resource, especially if someone gets turned away and needs help finding safe shelter.”
- Seek out a substance use disorder program. “SUD treatment programs serve a lot of domestic violence survivors,” Komaromy says. “Some programs are focused on parents and children, particularly mothers, and allow them to bring children with her into treatment. So, that could be a good option. There aren’t enough of these programs out there, but there are some.”
- Contact your state’s U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) office. “Fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence qualifies under HUD’s definition of homelessness, and so housing and homelessness prevention programs available through HUD may be another option,” Zapata-Alma says. “Housing advocates can be an important resource to find out what kinds of options are available in the community.” Find a housing counselor.
- Reach out to a local harm reduction organization. Harm reduction programs are designed to mitigate the negative effects of substance use and will never turn someone away because they are using substances and often know what kinds of resources there might be in the community.
- Connect with your state DV coalition, tribal coalition or the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Not sure if you have a substance use disorder? Read “Do I Need to Go to Rehab?” to learn about the signs of addiction and the types of help that are available, including inpatient rehabilitation, outpatient treatment, and individual and group therapy. Then, find treatment through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
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