Impossible Choices

Women Caught Between Domestic Violence and Homelessness

Pisgah Legal Services helps more than 15,000 people each year and now has five offices in
the WNC region: Asheville, Brevard, Hendersonville, Marshall, and Rutherfordton. These are
some of the dedicated staff and attorneys who work at Pisgah Legal Services.

Pisgah Legal Services Helps Women and Children Escape, Rebuild Their Lives

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

“Beth’s” husband kept tight control over her, seizing her paychecks, ensuring he was her only source of transportation to and from work, even keeping the food in the house under lock and key. One day he threw Beth against a wall and broke her shoulder. She hoped he would regret what he had done and apologize. Instead he told her, “I should have broken more than your shoulder. I should have broken your neck.”

“People wonder why women don’t just leave when they are being abused. But the truth is they often have nowhere else to go,” says Pisgah Legal Services Managing Attorney Robin Merrell.
After years of enduring emotional torture, Beth knew she had to leave when the abuse became physical. But with no money, nowhere else to go, and an injury that now kept her from working, she was trapped. Beth says, “I wanted to leave but I didn’t have any money. I cooked, I cleaned, I worked two jobs, I canned food but he wouldn’t give me any money for anything. I couldn’t leave.”

Beth’s story is an all-too-familiar one, says Anne Salter, an attorney who specializes in domestic violence at Pisgah Legal Services (PLS), a nonprofit law firm that provides free legal aid to low-income people in Western North Carolina. “When a woman comes to us for help escaping domestic violence, we expect they will probably also need housing. The two usually go hand-in-hand.”

The Intersection between Homelessness and Domestic Violence

According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, on one day in 2016 more than 41,000 adults and children in the U.S. fled domestic violence and found refuge in emergency or transitional housing. Other studies show that as many as 57% of all homeless women report domestic violence as the immediate cause of their homelessness.

“People wonder why women don’t just leave when they are being abused. But the truth is they often have nowhere else to go,” says Pisgah Legal Services Managing Attorney Robin Merrell.

Abusers’ Controlling Behavior Results in Economic Instability for Women

Many abusers insist on controlling all aspects of their victim’s lives: if, when and where they work, their access to cell phones, contact with family or friends and especially control of the family’s financial resources. In the United States, victims of domestic violence lose a total of eight million days of paid work each year. Up to 60 percent lose their jobs due to reasons stemming from the abuse.

Another Pisgah Legal client, “Anita’s,” abusive boyfriend would sit for hours inside the fast food restaurant where she worked, watching her. Anita was fired when he loudly accused her of having affairs with her boss and multiple co-workers in front of the customers. Once they were back home, he choked her until she lost consciousness. Anita had to protect herself and her infant son. That meant finding a new job and a new place to live.

Housing Instability Can Persist Even After Leaving an Abuser

Survivors can also face housing discrimination when landlords evict them for repeated calls to the police or property damage caused by the abuser. Pisgah Legal client “Carrie’s” ex-husband became violent when he dropped their kids off at her new apartment after a weekend visit. Carrie got an eviction notice the next day. “Getting the eviction notice was a real hit to my self-esteem,” said Carrie. “It was the first place I ever had on my own with my kids,” she remembers.

Legal Remedies for Women and Children in Crisis

When women like Beth, Anita and Carrie face challenges in escaping from abuse and finding housing, they often need a legal advocate. Trying to secure a court protective order or defend an eviction without an attorney can be like trying to navigate a cancer diagnosis without a doctor. Pisgah Legal staff and volunteer attorneys obtain protection orders, gain custody of children, secure access to family property and financial resources, and work together with local shelters and housing organizations to help survivors find stable, affordable housing.

Last year alone, Pisgah Legal Services helped more than 5,700 local people escaping domestic violence, and more than 2,900 people who needed housing. With the help of Pisgah Legal attorneys and social workers, Beth divorced her husband, obtained alimony and court-mandated health insurance through her husband’s company, and got her own apartment in public housing. Her shoulder healed and she found a new job.

With a PLS attorney at her side, Anita won sole custody of the child she had with her boyfriend and unemployment benefits from being fired from her job. She and her son moved in with her parents.

PLS attorneys stopped Carrie’s eviction and then negotiated out of court to have it dismissed. She found a new apartment where her ex-husband doesn’t know the location. Carrie is extremely grateful for the help. “If I had an eviction on my record it would have hurt my credit. It would have affected my ability to provide for my family in the future. Pisgah Legal also gave me more time to find another place, and helped relieve some of the stress I was feeling.”

Do You Need Help? Want to Help Others?

If you need help escaping domestic violence, please call Pisgah Legal Services at 828-254-0406 or 1-800-489-6144.
You can also make a tax-deductible gift to Pisgah Legal Services. Give online at, or call Betsy Ellis at (828) 210-3444 for other giving options.
(*Names have been changed to protect PLS clients.)

Evie Sandlin White is a native of Western North Carolina who works as the communications manager for Pisgah Legal Services.

Written by Evie Sandlin White