Sherry Hunt knew she had to hide.
She had ended a relationship with the father of her son 17 years ago, and the two went their separate ways. Years later, when he got out of prison in 2014 and found out she had obtained a court order demanding he pay child support, he threatened her to back down or else. He knew where she lived and worked.
Scarred by her experience in a previous abusive marriage, she resigned from her job and fled with her kids to a shelter.
Hunt, 39, who now works in Miami’s fashion industry, is among the estimated 10 million people a year in the U.S. — one in four women and one in nine men — who experience physical violence and other forms of domestic abuse, such as stalking or sexual assault, from their partner, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
When looking for a way out, victims often must choose between financial security and the safety of themselves and their children. They might have to quit their job to relocate, or avoid putting their co-workers in danger.
Thanks to a new bill that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law and went into effect July 1, domestic violence victims no longer have to make that choice. HB 563 provides unemployment benefits to domestic violence victims who’ve been forced to quit their job and/or relocate to avoid an abusive situation.
To qualify, a person must present a court injunction, protective order or other evidence that “reasonably proves” domestic violence occurred.
They must also make an effort to stay employed, such as moving if that job has other locations, unless those efforts wouldn’t help.
Florida is the 42nd state to allow domestic violence victims to qualify for unemployment benefits. They previously couldn’t qualify if they voluntarily resigned from their job.
“We have to highlight the involuntary nature of having to make that decision,” said Rep. Dotie Joseph, D-Miami, who championed the bill in the Florida House of Representatives.
“If a job has multiple locations and he’s not going to be able to track you down or doesn’t know you’d transfer, then that’s practical. As long as you feel safe,” Joseph said.
The representatives, community organizers and domestic violence survivors who lobbied for the bill celebrated its passing July 8 at the Miami Workers Center. It took eight-hour bus rides to Tallahassee and the testimonies of hundreds of survivors to reach their goal.
They rejoiced in a victory that’s been eight years in the making. But although the bill is landmark legislation for domestic violence protections in Florida, advocates and survivors say much more needs to be done.
It takes three to four months for a person who qualifies for unemployment benefits in Florida to get the first payment. They can receive benefits for up to 12 to 23 weeks, all while proving they are actively looking for employment. The amount is capped at $275 a week.
The average monthly cost of rent in Miami is around $1,800. When it comes to renting a place to live, Miami-Dade is one of the most expensive large counties in the nation, with 61 percent of the population spending more than 38 percent of their income on rent. The general standard is that people should not spend more than 30 percent of their household income on housing costs.
For a domestic violence survivor looking to rent a new apartment after escaping, the cost of the security deposit, utilities, food, transportation and child care pose additional burdens. Shelters, or homelessness, often is a reality.
Shelters are an immediate means of escape for domestic violence victims, that is, if they can get into one. Hunt was able to avoid a six-month wait list for The Lodge, with the assistance of her friend Marcia Olivo, executive director of the Miami Workers Center.
“The thing about Miami-Dade County is that there are more shelters, but there are also more people who need it. What we need to do is fund more shelters, but they’re not meant to be long-term affordable housing,” said Joseph. “They’re places to help you get out of the terrible situation you’re in until you can relocate to something that’s more stable.”
Every day, thousands of people across the country are turned away from shelters and denied housing services because programs lack adequate funding. In just one 24-hour period in 2015, 7,728 requests for shelter and housing were declined, according to The National Domestic Violence Census.
In Miami, The Lodge, which has 50 beds, provides temporary emergency shelter and supportive services such as clothing, food, personal care items, crisis intervention, safety planning, counseling and assistance. Lodge staffers also help residents get a court injunction to keep the perpetrator away.
Lotus House, a Miami nonprofit organization for homeless women and children escaping abuse, recently opened a new shelter with supportive services that houses 500 women and children. Miami-Dade County has two emergency shelters, one in the northern part of of the county and one in the southern part. Together, they have 118 beds.
Stays are limited to six to eight weeks, and services include crisis counseling and emergency financial assistance. The locations of these shelters are kept secret to protect the victims.
Most domestic violence shelters allow people to stay up to three months. But in some cases, three months isn’t enough for victims to get their lives back on track, nor do they feel safe in traditional housing.
In transitional housing, survivors can spend another six to 24 months at a domestic violence center. Some offer services such as counseling and job placement.
The county has two transitional housing locations, north and south, that are fully furnished apartments appropriate to family size. The north has 19 units and the south has 55 units. Stays are for up to two years. A program fee of a third of a person’s income is required.
The Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, which directs the county’s homelessness initiatives, has spearheaded several projects to address domestic abuse victims’ vulnerability to homelessness.
“We clearly understand that there’s a tremendous intersection between the two,” said Ron Book, chair of the Homeless Trust.
Along with a new 60-bed domestic violence shelter funded by its Domestic Violence Oversight Board, the Trust is also accepting proposals for a domestic violence support services project, along with housing proposals. These proposals will compete with other projects around the country for $1.6 million in federal funding.
“Shelter and transitional housing are not enough. They are both temporary,” Book said. “We need to help those fleeing domestic violence return to permanent housing and restart their lives.”
Finding the courage to flee an abusive situation and check into a shelter can be a challenge.
A friend of Hunt’s, a Nigerian student whose physically abusive boyfriend threatened to call immigration authorities on her, returned to her abuser just a few days after checking into a shelter because the unfamiliar environment scared her, and she didn’t have the financial means to go elsewhere. Hunt, who paid for her Uber ride to the shelter, does not know what happened to her.
Experts say there’s a dire need for more shelters that can guide a victim back toward safety and independence.
Somy Ali, a former Bollywood actress who founded No More Tears, a nonprofit to help South Florida domestic violence victims, said the majority of shelters aren’t efficient. Not only are they always full, but they don’t prepare people for long-term success, Ali said. She frequently gets phone calls from other shelters or from domestic violence advocates with victims who need immediate care.
“I cannot be more emphatic about the lack of services that shelters provide besides a bed,” said Ali. “They need more than a bunk bed. What’s gonna happen in three weeks when they need to leave?”
No More Tears has no shelter buildings. Instead, the organization has secret residential locations, known as safe spaces, scattered across South Florida, where those seeking safety can hide from their abusers without a time limit.
Once enrolled in No More Tears, a victim has access to the organization’s range of services: food, clothing, medical care, immigration services, funds for education and jobs. No one is put on a waiting list.
“You can’t tell a woman who’s getting beaten every day that she has to come back because of a wait list,” she said.
They also connect survivors with Realtors who help them find apartments. No More Tears will pay the first and last month of the security deposit. Only survivors with a job have access to this service.
“You’re not empowering them. You’re just paying their rent for free. You have to do something,” said Ali.
Hunt, who has since found a job and is raising her two children, a teenage son and a young daughter, has navigated her way out of her abusive situation and takes every opportunity to empower other women living in fear.
“There will always be a light at the end of the tunnel. Remember that there are advocates willing to help you,” she said. “Call the domestic violence hotline. They’ll help you create an escape plan and direct you to the right resources.”
How to get help
▪ Florida Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-500-1119
▪ National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
▪ No More Tears: 954-324-7669
▪ Lotus House: 305-438-0556