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Column: Let's extend protections in Violence Against Women Act

File Photo: Al Franken thinks hard Tuesday while answering a quiz question at the University of Minnesota booth at FarmFest. He later debated U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, whom he hopes to replace. (Don Davis/Minn. State Capitol Bureau)

WASHINGTON -- Nobody should have to choose between safety and shelter. Yet 48 percent of homeless women in Minnesota have previously stayed in abusive situations because they did not have safehousing options available to them. Twenty-nine percent of homeless adult women in Minnesota are fleeing domestic violence, and more than half of those women are living with children. That simply is not acceptable.

This problem is not unique to Minnesota. Far from it. National studies establish an undeniable link between homelessness and domestic and sexual violence. By one account, two in five women who experience domestic violence will become homeless at some point in their lives.

Of course, we all know that this problem isn't about statistics. It's about real people with real stories.

It's about the woman in California who was evicted for "causing a nuisance" after the police responded to an incident -- where she was the victim. It's about the mother of five in Florida who received a termination notice after her ex-husband broke down her door and assaulted her. And it's about the 83-year-old woman in Minnesota who was threatened with eviction from her public housing unit because of disturbances caused by her abuser.

Though the link between homelessness and domestic and sexual violence is undeniable, it isn't unbreakable. The 2005 Violence Against Women Act included important protections that made it unlawful to deny someone housing assistance under certain federal programs just because the individual is a victim of domestic violence, dating violence or stalking. From conversations with experts in Minnesota, I know that those protections have been invaluable.

The Violence Against Women Act is now up for reauthorization. That occasion provides us an opportunity to build on the successes of the 2005 bill and to address its shortcomings. That's why I introduced the bipartisan Housing Rights for Victims of Domestic and Sexual Violence Act. This bill is for every woman who has hesitated to call the police to enforce a protective order because she was afraid that she'd be evicted if she did. The bill rests on the simple premise that a woman should not lose her home just because she is a victim of domestic or sexual violence.

My bill makes it unlawful to deny a woman federally assisted housing just because she is a victim of domestic violence, dating violence, stalking or sexual assault. This is an improvement on existing law, which does not protect victims of sexualassault and does not protect residents of many federal housing programs, including the Rural Services Housing Program.

My bill also takes an important new step toward ensuring that victims of domestic and sexual violence do not end up on the streets. It requires managers of federally supported housing units to adopt emergency transfer policies for women who would be in imminent danger were they to stay in their current homes. Under these policies, a victim of domestic or sexual violence could move to a safe, federally subsidized housing unit instead of staying in harm's way.

This bill will keep women and children in their homes at a time when they are vulnerable -- when they need a roof over their heads the most. It is no secret that shelters and transitional housing programs are overextended. This legislation is a preventive measure that addresses a victim's housing needs before she requires those services.

Advocacy groups from throughout the country helped me craft this bill, and it already has been endorsed by 10 Minnesota organizations, including the Central Minnesota Housing Partnership, the Minnesota Domestic Abuse Project, and the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women.  

The bill builds upon housing protections that were included in the 2005 Violence Against Women Act, which passed the Senate with unanimous consent and was signed into law by President George W. Bush. Though many say the political climate in Washington has changed for the worse in the years since then, I am hopeful that the goals underlying this bill once again will transcend partisanship.

We have worked together to address the unique housing needs facing domestic and sexual violence victims in the past, and I'm hopeful we can do so again.