Sexual Violence Prevention = Housing Justice

Rachel Martin Asproth

My passion for housing justice is both professional and profoundly personal. Three years ago, I started working at the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, a statewide coalition aimed at ending sexual violence. I have heard far too many testimonies about how barriers to housing either placed a survivor in an unsafe situation, or prevented them from leaving an abusive relationship.

I began this work with bright-eyed optimism before realizing that we would never create sustainable change without corresponding action on housing injustice, fair pay, and food security.

I personally know multiple people who have experienced domestic abuse and struggled to find an affordable place to live. I have witnessed the immense courage it takes to leave an abusive living situation.

I have also seen the disturbing reality that finding a safer living situation takes resources many people simply do not have. These stories drive me to speak out about housing injustice and the disparities between who is housed and who is not.

Unsheltered and Unprotected

Secure housing has become more elusive and less affordable in Minnesota in the past two years. Rent and housing prices have soared, yet wages often do not match the high cost of living. BIPOC and LGBTQ+ Minnesotans have been hit hardest by this gap, with discriminatory workplace and housing policies creating obstacles to security that many others can take for granted. Older people, single parents, and disabled folks also face significant hurdles to safe housing.

Surveying people who stayed in a shelter or transitional housing program in pre-pandemic 2019, Minnesota’s Homeless Data Information System found that one in 67 Minnesotans of color experienced homelessness, compared with one in 641 white Minnesotans. Additionally, 67 percent of households waiting for placements in shelters or housing programs included a disabled person.

Experiencing gender-based violence is strongly correlated with becoming unsheltered. Being unsheltered is a significant risk factor for experiencing sexual violence. In Minnesota, “nearly 6 in 10 homeless adults have experienced physical or sexual violence. Women and people who identify as LGBTQ experience this violence at higher rates,” according to the Minnesota Homeless study.

With rising housing prices and rent rates, limited affordable housing options, and lack of a living wage for many, there is also greater potential for abuse and exploitation. In a study of 100 low- income women living in public housing or participating in the Section 8 voucher program, 16 percent had experienced sexual harassment from a landlord.

In one recent Minnesota case, a landlord was accused of sexually harassing 23 female tenants — making unwanted comments and sexual advances, touching their bodies, and soliciting sexual favors in exchange for rent forgiveness. This behavior was directed mainly toward Black single mothers.

Additionally, there are significant barriers to housing for undocumented immigrants, particularly if they cannot access their birth certificates or other legal documents. Securing a loan or even renting an apartment can be difficult for people without a driver’s license. Language barriers and fear of deportation likely deter many immigrants from reporting violence, including sexual exploitation by a landlord.

According to the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey, an estimated 5,000 Minnesota students reported trading sex to receive money, food, drugs, alcohol, or a place to stay. LGBTQ+ youth in particular are more likely to be precariously housed and are therefore at greater risk for sexual exploitation or trafficking. Indigenous youth and youth from lower-income households are targeted as well.

Most youth programming to prevent violence takes place in schools in the form of healthy relationship-skills education. Yet I have heard violence and trafficking preventionists ask whether such programs can have a real impact if youth are worried about where they will stay that night.

There is a limited number of shelter spaces available for survivors in Minnesota right now, and Covid-19 continues to worsen the shortage. Some service programs are able to offer supportive housing options after temporary shelter, but there simply are not enough options or funding to meet the long- term housing needs of survivors.

Stable housing is vital for survivors of violence to heal and feel safe again. As someone who has been a part of the anti- violence movement for eight years, I am convinced there is no solution to sexual violence without a solution to housing injustice.

Action = Change

Ask your representatives to support Eviction Reform (House File 20/SF766 and House File 265/SF771). It will make it easier to have a past eviction expunged.

Support state legislation that increases housing access and affordability for all, such as source-of-income protections. This will limit landlords’ ability to discriminate against individuals who use rental or housing assistance. Endorse the Income Source Protection Campaign.

Find out what affordable housing exists in your area and support local initiatives to create more options. Contact your city council to learn more.

Ask your representatives to advocate for increased funding for direct service organizations in Minnesota so they can provide services to survivors.