University of Virginia School of Nursing
"The experience of being black, poor and abused often creates situations from which it's hard to escape," says Patty Wilson, PhD.

An icon of a shield to signify scholarship in violence affecting women, families, and individuals.  It stands to reason that abused mothers without a place to live and under financial distress are more likely experience depression and more likely to remain at their abuser’s address because of it. But do race and ethnicity play a role in the chronic housing instability among abused women?

Domestic violence is among the leading causes of homelessness among women. Regardless of race, women who experience abuse are four times more likely than the non-abused to experience housing instability and financial stress, factors that can lead them to remain in chronically abusive situations. Studies estimate up to half of all homeless women become so when attempting to flee an abusive environment. School of Nursing doctoral student Patty Wilson - who is African-American herself - wondered: Why did so many of the abused African-American women in the Baltimore shelter where she worked as a community health nurse return to the shelter repeatedly?

"There's a misconception that abused women in shelters aren't working, or that they're not trying to stabilize their lives," says Wilson. "People say to them, ‘Why can't you just find someplace to rent?' But it’s often true that victims of abuse have tarnished credit due to past evictions. They can't get a traditional rental, which requires a sizable cash deposit, and are forced to rent from unscrupulous landlords. So they begin reconstructing their lives at a huge disadvantage at a point when a boost -- even a small one -- is really what they need."

In her two-part analysis, Wilson found that while skin color and ethnicity are not predictive of housing instability and chronic exposure to intimate partner violence (IPV), poverty, education, and underemployment are. These ingredients, she says, point to why African-American women -- who more often live in areas of extreme poverty and who more often are underemployed and earning wages that do not allow them to escape from poverty -- tend to be over-represented among the chronically abused, chronically homeless and most at risk for depression and, at worst, homicide. More than a quarter of American black families live in poverty compared to ten percent of white families.

For her dissertation, Wilson conducted interviews with abused black women in urban Baltimore before beginning the quantitative portion of her work, which analyzed a large, national dataset including data on 4,900 children born to fragile American families. Wilson found that nearly half of women who reported housing instability had less than a high school education and the majority of them were employed but earned less than $10,000 a year. She also found a significant association between housing instability and chronic abuse regardless of race, and regardless of whether the mother lived with the baby's father or not.

For Wilson, her findings underscore the criticality of safe, affordable housing as a necessary first step for any abused woman of any race yearning to leave an abuser. Wilson says her work – the first to examine whether race or ethnicity influence experiences of housing instability, depression, and chronic exposure to IPV – also underscores the need for more affordable housing, programs that offer support to women escaping abuse and the fervent need for jobs that pay a living wage.

"We know that different aspects of someone’s identity interact with the manner in which they experience things, including, and especially gender-based violence," adds Wilson. "That’s the case here. They don’t become depressed, poor and abused because they’re black; but the experience of being black and poor and abused in America often contributes to situations from which it’s hard to escape.”