STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

There's a growing need for shelter for victims fleeing domestic abuse

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If you are in an abusive situation and you need emergency shelter or transitional housing, you can search for resources in your community at

A few years ago, I was tagging along with a social worker on a visit with one of her clients. The social worker was Joni Cook, she works with the Maternal Infant Health Program at Cherry Health in Grand Rapids. We sat in the living room, with her client, who was cradling a beautiful new baby girl.

And things seem to be going well. But then the client started telling Cook about the baby’s father. She broke down as she talked about him hitting her. She was terrified of what he might do next.  

"She felt very unsafe," Cook said to me this week. "And I remember her saying the people who are supposed to be protecting me are not protecting me."

Cook started running down a checklist of what to do in an abusive situation: call the police, go to the court for a personal protection order, go to a shelter.

But the shelter was out of room. She had to stay at her mothers house, and she was terrified her abuser would try to get in.

When I met up again with Cook this week to talk about all this, what I wanted to know was, how rare was it to have someone turned away like this?

"It’s not rare," she told me. "Which is sad to say, but it’s the reality. That happens quite frequently."

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Michigan Radio

"It’s a huge problem," says Judy Benitez, who's with the National Network to End Domestic Violence. Each year, the network does a census, asking shelters around the country to report how many victims of domestic abuse they served on a single day, and how many they had to turn away.

"And in just one 24-hour period in September of last year, there were 12,197 requests for assistance that programs were unable to meet," she says, "and 63 percent of those requests were for housing."

The number of adult victims who were turned away solely because of a lack of available housing quadrupled between 2006 and 2012.

That’s 7,728 requests nationwide in a single day last year where the person making the request, and their children, didn’t get help. About 160 of the requests were in Michigan alone.

And according to the most recent data available from the Department of Justice, the number of adult victims who were turned away solely because of a lack of available housing quadrupled between 2006 and 2012.

"We need more transitional housing for abused women," says Tasha Pulliam, who lives in Grand Rapids and meets with many women who’ve been victims of abuse. She told me she’s heard over and over from women who wanted to get out of a bad situation, but they didn’t really have anywhere to go, especially if they have children. They’re forced, like Joni Cook’s client, to essentially couch surf with any friend or family member who will take them in.  

"And that puts them in a dangerous situation, it really does," says Pulliam. "The children can’t go to school, the parents may not show up for work."

Often, these women end up back with their abuser.

Pulliam is hoping she can do something to fix the problem. About a year ago, she started trying to set up her own shelter, she calls it the House of J.O.I. (J.O.I. stands for the Joy of Independence).

But it’s not as easy as just buying a house and opening it up to women who need help. She says she hears all the time from women, wondering if she’s opened her shelter yet, and she hasn’t. Solving this problem isn’t as easy as just wanting to solve it. It takes a lot of money and a lot of time.

In the meantime, there are services available for people who need help. The website allows you to search for housing options in each city. Thousands of people every day do get help, and do get out of bad situations.

Just not nearly all.  

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.