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She experienced weapon-involved domestic violence after her perpetrator moved out—into another unit in the same building. And Selena’s ex began surveilling her. She’d open her apartment door—and her ex would be there. She’d return from the gym at 5:30 a.m. and her ex would be stalking her, waiting in the garage. The building had documented a long history of physical abuse.

The Safe Homes Act (SHA) is designed to protect survivors from exactly this type of abuse and enduring harassment. The SHA allows survivors to end leases early or change locks when they are facing a credible threat of domestic or sexual violence or have experienced sexual violence where they live.

And yet the building would do nothing. Because the violence she’d experienced didn’t fit into their expectations for domestic violence and sexual violence.

Sometimes “it’s the empathy that keeps us there. And being scared that we’re not going to be able to make it.” Graciela knows the patterns of domestic violence well. She’s lived them. And she’s worked for over two decades at the Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline as a Victim Information Resource Advocate (VIRA, someone who talks with survivors who call the Hotline).

Fundamental to our work as advocates is empowering survivors, helping them strategize and believe themselves capable of taking the actions they need to be safer. As Debra, another VIRA for over two decades, affirms, “Only a victim knows the abuser and how far that abuser would go.”

Survivors are experts in what is takes to survive moment to moment. We listen, offer counsel, and build more options with them.

Debra works at the Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline. She and her colleagues Graciela and Claudia have been here for over two decades, nearly since the Hotline opened in 1998. And in that time, they’ve seen the options for survivors change dramatically.

When the Hotline first opened, connecting victims with shelter was the main task for VIRAs (Victim Information Resource Advocates, those who answer calls). Shelters had greater availability than today, though, because far fewer clients sought housing in the early years.

Housing is a huge challenge at present, much amplified during the pandemic and economic crisis, because victims are in close proximity with their perpetrators meaning their needs are often more complex and they face greater violence, with a higher lethality.

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