Rethinking Valentine's Day
As Valentine’s Day approaches and stores fill with merchandise celebrating love and family, a harsh reality is being lived out every day by young people facing homelessness. It is the very real fear of trauma and violence at the hands of a once-trusted partner.
Intimate partner violence is a form of abuse that occurs between two people who have a close, personal relationship. It is a heinous form of betrayal that robs a person of their self-esteem and of any belief in themselves or in their own dreams. And it can be hard to get that self-esteem back.
Young women and men who face homelessness are especially vulnerable to intimate partner violence, harassment, and the sexual misconduct of others. Unlike the recent and long-overdue spotlight that is today illuminating sexual harassment in high-profile industries such as Hollywood, youth experiencing homelessness can expect no spotlight to finally reveal the unconscionable, even criminal behavior to which they’ve been subjected. The abuse they suffer can lead to a life of misery, human trafficking, or perpetual control over their lives by someone else.
When Aubree (not her real name) came to Covenant House, her boyfriend’s violence was cyclical. She’d come to the shelter one day with a black eye; another day with a broken wrist. She was always embarrassed to tell her caseworker that she was going back to the boyfriend. Consistently, though, going back to him was temporary, as his violent behavior inevitably put Aubree back on the street and back at the shelter.
Ruby (not her real name) was 18 when she took up with her 40-year-old boyfriend. When he turned violent, she tried to leave him and go home to her family, but her parents said no. She had made her choice, they said. By the time Ruby found Covenant House, her trust in anyone who tried to help her had been seriously damaged, her self-esteem eroded.
At Covenant House, when a young person comes to us with signs of abuse or a tale of violence perpetrated against her (and more than 20 percent of youth across our movement are survivors of domestic violence), we first work toward ensuring her safety.
A Safe Place, with Love and Respect
“Usually, an incident brings intimate partner violence to our attention, or someone comes to us with bruises,” says Katrina Hunter, a licensed mental health counselor. Katrina is the mental health administrator at Covenant House New York, one of 32 Covenant House sites in six countries that assist young people experiencing homelessness.
“Sometimes survivors are in denial,” she says, “or they don’t see the action as intimate partner violence. The aggression may be so routine and regular that they accept it as normal.”
At Covenant House, safe space opens up for that young person when she crosses our threshold and is greeted with absolute respect and unconditional love. From there, we provide legal, medical, and mental health services; support groups; and workshops for our youth.
“We work with survivors to help them reframe the violent actions and to understand their rights. But these conversations are tempered by survivors’ fear, sadness, sense of betrayal, and worry about what could happen if they talk,” Katrina says.
Covenant House takes those security concerns seriously. We will notify site security if a vengeful perpetrator threatens to come after one of our youth, and create a safety plan with the young survivor. We will even explore offsite housing options if that will keep her safe.
“We’re always looking to expand our services, to build deeper collaboration among our departments, and to partner with other agencies that specialize in services for youth struggling with intimate partner violence,” Katrina says. “If we don’t offer a given service, we have a list of providers who do.”
And while young women comprise most of the youth at Covenant House who seek help dealing with violent relationships, young men also struggle with intimate partner violence, but are less likely to talk about it.
“It’s difficult for them to admit to it or even to consider this behavior as intimate partner or domestic violence. We work with them to help them understand what’s happened to them, that they’ve been hurt, and then to provide them with services,” Katrina says.
“A young person who deals with violent behavior on a regular basis learns to see it as ‘normal’ or ‘deserved.’ Coming to the realization that it’s not right and that she or he needs help dealing with this is the single most important step toward healing and the first step toward success,” Katrina underscores.
She recalls the story of Jaxon (not his real name), whose girlfriend was expecting their first baby. During her pregnancy she went through some volatile emotions. “When she got upset, she hit him with the intention of hurting him. He felt he should just take it,” Katrina says.
“Success in this case came when he told us about the violent behavior. He was hurt and bruised. He came to us and said, ‘She hit me. I don’t know what to do.’ He knew it wasn’t right, and he came and told me: ‘This is what’s really going on, and I don’t know what to do.’”
It was a huge step for Jaxon, just as it was for Aubree and Ruby, when they finally were able to acknowledge that they did not deserve to be hurt and that they needed help to change a violent situation. Both women managed to extricate themselves from their abusive relationships and get a fresh start. All three came to understand that they are persons of worth and value, deserving of respect and capable of giving it, too.
When young women and men become aware of their inherent dignity and that violence has no place in intimate, loving relationships, they not only build up their own lives but foster a culture where people honor one another instead of taking advantage of the most vulnerable.
That’s a celebration of love we can all embrace.