WISE was founded in 1971, and, according to their website, “has supported more than 10,000 people, provided trauma support training to over 5,000 first-responder professionals, taught healthy relationship skills to more than 18,000 students and reached over 11,000 community members with customized workshops.”
It began as a career resource for women and, over time, became recognized as a safe space for women to share their experiences. “WISE listened and was struck by the stories of domestic and sexual violence at home and in the work place and realized that women were suffering,” their website reads.
Today, the lack of housing is recognized as a barrier to leaving violent situations. In fact, domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness for women. “Housing is absolutely a priority for WISE, and it’s a huge issue,” said Betsy Kohl, Director of Communication and Development for the organization.
While the Upper Valley is recognizing more and more that the shortage of housing is impacting the labor market, the situation is more dire for people living in violent situations. Survivors of domestic and sexual violence often don’t have their own source of income or are depended upon for childcare.
In 2001, WISE rented its first apartment to serve as a confidential emergency shelter for women fleeing violence. In 2006, it bought its first building, designed to serve as a permanent and safe space for the organization, survivors, and the community. It became WISE’s Program Center in 2008. In 2013, WISE purchased its Safe Home to offer a safe place for survivors and their children fleeing violence and in need of safe, confidential living arrangements.
The WISE Safe Home fills a critical need for survivors, but need far exceeds capacity. The Safe Home is for women and children who are actively fleeing and need a safe place to stay tonight. At most, it can support 3 independent adults and their children, and it is limited to shorter stays. At any given time, there can be a combination of single women and families living together in one house. It is also communal living, which is not always ideal. Individuals and families eventually want to live in their own home space and want to establish routines that are responsive to their specific needs. The WISE Safe Home houses independent people with different life experiences who come together to share a space. It is meant to offer short term stays and is not sustainable for longer term stays.
WISE also has relationships with local motels and hotels that can provide emergency shelter. It works with community partners like the Haven, Listen, and Twin Pines to help people find housing or to keep people in the housing they already have. WISE also works with private landlords to help survivors and their children find a stable place to live while they rebuild their lives. Peggy O’Neil, WISE Executive Director, explained, “Survivors of gender-based violence want and need a multitude of housing options available. Our WISE Advocates are knowledgeable about what is available for housing in our Upper Valley community. They support survivors with their housing needs from emergency housing to short-term and transitional housing to ongoing and stable housing.”
One of the biggest issues confronting survivors is the lack of safe housing options. Almost every day and through the night, survivors call WISE for support securing safe housing. “One of the hardest things for Advocates is not having enough good options to offer when people need a safe place to stay,” Betsy said.
The housing shortage doesn’t make the work easier, but one glimmer of light is a multi-unit apartment building that WISE has purchased and is currently renovating. The building will provide transitional apartments and allow survivors to stay for longer periods of time than what is possible in the Safe Home. The building, like a lot of housing stock in the Upper Valley, is over 150 years old, but WISE is adding onsite laundry, an accessible unit, and is addressing other structural issues including an upgraded electrical system, new siding, and new roof.
A transitional apartment is a step beyond emergency shelter but before more permanent living. It is a space to build financial security and work on a lot of other barriers that survivors encounter, including legal issues, education, and a limited employment history. Transitional apartments are a critical interim point for survivors who are trying to move forward with their lives. Peggy added, “Our transitional apartments are there for survivors to take a deep breath, have their home, their own space to live, while they plan for their future. Some survivors may want to establish rental reference, others may want to establish a work history, and still others are navigating long and complicated legal situations. WISE’s transitional apartments are there to give survivors the time and space to live their lives in the aftermath of violence as they prepare for the next part of their lives.”
Every community in the Upper Valley has a need for more housing right now. The same could be said specifically for transitional housing as well, but there are reasons to focus transitional housing in or near Lebanon and Hartford, among them the availability of public transportation like Advance Transit if the survivor lacks their own vehicle, and the proximity to pharmacies and family court, located in Lebanon and Hartford for New Hampshire and Vermont respectively.
How do we really end violence against women? Peggy responded, “Cultural and social change very much includes more accessibility to affordable housing and affordable childcare —addressing these two significant barriers for survivors to flee unsafe households would be incredibly impactful for survivors, for us all.”