MARTINSBURG – The Eastern Panhandle Empowerment Center is working to break the circle of stress and failure, specifically related to housing, in a system that sometimes seems designed to cause those struggles with its new venture.
Through a special portion of HUD funding specifically for licensed domestic violence service provides, EPEC recently received funding that will allow for the start of a rapid rehousing program, a safe living space being a large obstacle for many survivors.
The funding also helped create a full-time position that will focus solely on housing.
“Housing is one of our biggest issues,” EPEC Executive Director Katie Spriggs said. “Domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness among women, so obviously, housing and domestic violence go hand in hand.”
The rapid rehousing program helps survivors find safe housing in which EPEC will fully pay for the rent through the HUD funding. Spriggs and EPEC housing advocate Jenna Pepple stressed the challenges survivors face on numerous fronts when it comes to finding safe housing following leaving a violent situation.
“When people are in these situations, when they’re experiencing domestic violence, they’re leaving everything behind,” Pepple said. “They leave all of their belongings, everything in order for safety. Safety is the primary thing at that time. A lot of the times, there’s financial exploitation or where the abuser is in control of the money. These people are leaving all of that behind and coming into a shelter. They’re starting from basically nothing. Affordable housing is so important, because we need that safe space for them. We need them to have something that is solid and constant so they can work through else to get them back on their feet.”
And the trauma that comes from living in a violent situation – trauma that comes in many forms – carries with them, rapid housing tackling that from an informed mindset that focuses on helping the victim find independence.
“Rapid rehousing is basically a housing-first idea that for the people that have the most difficult access to housing – people who might have a mental health issue, a substance use disorder issue, as well as experiencing domestic violence and/or they’ve been chronically homeless and/or the whole list goes on,” Spriggs said. “For the people who are most difficult to house, the idea is you house them first and you deal with everything else in the meantime, because at least then, they don’t have to worry about housing. It also operates on the tenet that housing is a right and not a privilege. As a human being, you have a right to safe housing.
“When they leave the situation, they’re leaving the violence, but they’re taking everything that happened with them. They’re taking bad credit. They’re taking evictions. They’re taking medical debt. They’re taking all of these things that we know sets us up for failure, that are hard to get out of. You should see how hard it is to house someone that has an eviction on their record. It takes an act of God. Getting them expunged is not as easy as it sounds. Plus, that involves an attorney. Attorneys cost money. It is a system that is not designed for people that struggle financially. If you sit in the system a minute, all of the other coping mechanisms make sense. Substance use disorder makes sense. Alcoholism makes sense. If everything you try fails, you have to find a way to cope. And you can’t access mental health services because guess what? They cost money. It’s an endless loop.”
Through the rapid rehousing program, funding will provide full rent, with EPEC being able to support eight to 10 units at a time across the Panhandle. The organization will pay the rent for anywhere from three months up to a year depending on the circumstances and situation.
“The plan for most of them will be we do 100% (of rent) three months, 75% for the next three months, 50%, so it weans them off it,” Spriggs said. “Obviously for some people, it’s going to be more complex. It’s not a cookie-cutter approach for everyone, but it’s the goal.”
The lease will be in the client’s name, though EPEC will be paying the bill. The goal is to stabilize the victim in the housing and allow them to stay in the location once the victim takes over the lease.
The pandemic has truly shined a light on the need for affordable housing for domestic violence victims more than ever, a need EPEC already knew existed greatly.
“It’s definitely changed the way we use the shelter and housing and how important it is,” Spriggs said. “We still have people in the shelter that have been with us since March, and that’s unusual. It doesn’t usually take that long. One thing COVID taught us was there’s not enough affordable housing, which we already knew, but it taught us on a real large scale. As soon as you put an eviction moratorium and nobody is allowed to be evicted, there goes every single open unit. There’s nowhere to put new people, because we don’t have enough housing.
“That definitely taught us a lesson. We obviously saw a rise in domestic violence as a whole during COVID, people being stuck at home, high stress, lack of employment, all of those things contributing to domestic violence. We’ve definitely seen more requests for shelter without any additional shelter space, so this is another way – I feel like we’ve been doing this for years – of trying to skirt the lack of shelter space we have.”
Working for EPEC for roughly a year, housing has been the largest obstacle Pepple has seen, one she has fought against time and time again and one she is happy to tackle head on in her new position.
“I have been the most excited I’ve ever been in my life. I’ve been working here for about a year now,” she said. “At first, I was kind of a crisis advocate, then a domestic violence advocate. The No. 1 issue, the No. 1 barrier I was always running into was housing. I just had these clients, and it was like, ‘If only we could get them in somewhere, we’d be able to do this. We’d be able to figure it out.’
“For the longest time, there were no solutions whatsoever. Finally, they literally created an entire position to help with people with the one barrier I have been trying to get over the entire time I’ve been an advocate. Now, I’m at the forefront of it. I get to do that myself. I’m so freaking exciting to help people in a way we haven’t been able to in such a long time. It’s going to be a whole new world, and I’m so ready.”
With funding secured, the next step in getting the program functional is partnering with property owners and landlords around the area. EPEC will be hosting a Zoom session from 2 p.m.-5 p.m. on Dec. 17 to meet with potential partners interested in being part of the program. Participants are not asked to be on for the entire three hours, but instead, EPEC representatives will be logged on as those interested can pop in to hear 15-20 minutes of information on the program. Any landlords and property owners who stay for the entire informational pitch will be rewarded with a $25 Target gift card.
Landlords must have units in Berkeley, Jefferson or Morgan counties, though there do not need to be openings currently available. Spriggs noted that HUD funding does not allow for utilities to be paid on their own but does allow for utilities to be paid if included as part of the rent, so that will be a large part of the informational session.
For more information on the rapid rehousing program or the Zoom session, contact Pepple at 304-263-8522 or at [email protected].