Nowhere to go: Crammed shelters, a seller’s market and financial challenges brew recipe for a domestic violence disaster

Photograph by Jordan Whitt

On March 10, Sacramento police Detective Michael Severi sat in a courtroom describing a crime scene from last summer, after officers rushed into a house to find a woman lying on a sofa with multiple gunshot wounds. She was pleading for help, her 5-year-old son at her side. Police noticed blood running down the child’s face as he cried hysterically.

Severi soon learned from witnesses what had happened. The woman, who would come to be known in court documents as “Lida Doe,” had arrived at her house that afternoon to find ex-boyfriend Randy Wallace waiting outside. Wallace was on probation at the time and had prior convictions for felony assault, child endangerment and violating a restraining order. Prosecutors would later say he had a history of domestic violence.

According to Lida’s roommate, as soon as she exited the car, Wallace began arguing with her. Then witnesses saw Wallace pull a revolver from his backpack and fire into Lida’s Volkswagen, striking it where her son and young daughter were sitting. Glass sprayed into her son’s eye and ear as Lida started screaming.

Wallace allegedly blurted, “I’m going to shoot you now, bitch,” fired three rounds into the dirt and then pistol-whipped Lida in the head. She toppled to the ground. When Lida looked up, the gun was pointed at her. She pleaded for her life.

“She said [that] the only thing that seemed to bring him down from the stage of emotions that he was in, she thought, was saying she loved him and wanted to be with him,” Severi testified from the witness stand. “She [thought] that he would stop.”

“And did he stop?” asked Deputy District Attorney Allison Dunham.

“No,” Severi said.

Standing just feet away, Wallace shot Lida three times in the chest and stomach. He then walked off.

Lida and her children survived. In 2016, seven other local women were not so lucky. According to Sacramento County’s Domestic Violence Death Review Team, the No. 1 “lethality factor” in their murders, all of which were preceded by stalking or spousal battery, involved the victim not having a plan to safely leave their abuser and then stay housed and hidden.

In other words, short- and long-term escape routes can be critical to survival. Yet three of the nonprofits supporting domestic violence victims in the region told SN&R that California’s affordable housing crisis is creating insurmountable barriers for women and their children who need protection.

“What’s increased is women opting not to leave, because there is no place to go,” said Elaine Whitefeather, executive director of A Community for Peace in Citrus Heights, which operates emergency shelters and transitional housing for victims. “Now we have to do safety planning not just for the women preparing to escape, but also for the women deciding to stay.”

Wallace was led into a courtroom on August 17 in an orange jumpsuit, his hands and ankles shackled by a four-piece chain. A jury found him guilty of premeditated attempted murder and felony child endangerment with a gun enhancement. Sacramento Superior Court Judge Laurel White sentenced him to 32-years-to-life in prison. The survivors of his attack weren’t there to see it.

“Our victims’ advocate has been in constant contact with Lida Doe,” prosecutor Dunham told the judge. “She did not want to be in the courtroom today.”

Whether working for the district attorney’s office or local nonprofit groups, victims’ advocates are trained to get women in Lida’s position as far from their abuser as possible. But with the capital region suffering some of the highest year-to-year rent increases in the nation, the push to add desperately needed shelter beds and find victims affordable housing options is becoming something like mission impossible, says Nilda Valmores, executive director of My Sister’s House.

Valmores’ nonprofit operates six emergency shelter beds and 12 transitional housing beds for domestic violence victims in Sacramento. It also offers a program for assisting them with rental challenges that come up when leaving a dangerous home life. Valmores says her agency fields about 3,000 crisis calls a year; and too often her advocates aren’t in a position to help everyone reaching out.

“When people call, I’ll tell them, ‘You have to call every night, because our shelter is full, and timing is everything,’” Valmores said. “Sometimes people get discouraged when they call, because we can’t guarantee them housing.”

Valmores’ agency has funding to expand the number of apartments and houses it’s leasing for shelter, but with Sacramento County reportedly lacking an estimated 58,550 low-income rentals needed to keep up with demand—at the same moment it’s gaining interest from Bay Area “super-commuters” willing to pay steeper rents—experts agree the region has become a landlord’s market, one with plenty of opportunities to go with the highest bidder.

“Ultimately it comes down to a landlord picking our organization to work with,” Valmores explained, “as well as the nearby residents saying, ‘Yes, we’ll have a shelter in our neighborhood.’”

Lynnette Irlmeier, executive director of the nonprofit Empower Yolo, says her team’s also experiencing a housing bottleneck for victims. Empower Yolo operates 35 emergency shelter beds in West Sacramento, Davis and the Woodland area, along with its own transitional housing initiative. Irlmeier says the crisis is having a major impact on those services.

“Eight years ago, the average length that a woman would stay at our emergency shelter was 28 days; but now it’s 58 days,” Irlmeier observed. “I do think not having housing available weighs a victim’s decision to go back to an abuser.”

And Irlmeier isn’t just talking about temporary housing, but realistic rental situations for the long run. She says Empower Yolo has roughly 20 victims who are currently approved for rental assistance, but still can’t find a house or apartment they can maintain even with the support.

“They could get help paying,” she stressed, “but there’s still nowhere for them to go.”

Whitefeather, who’s been a victim’s advocate for 40 years, has never seen the housing situation as dire as it is today. She said that lately her organization has more success transitioning victims into housing by sending them out of the region, or even out of the state.

“We’ve located more people out of Sacramento County—and sometimes to Nevada and states that are farther—because that’s easier, too,” Whitefeather added. “The rents here are extraordinary.”

The housing crisis is also endangering victims in rural corners of the region, says Tammie Crabtree, executive director of Operation Care. Crabtree’s nonprofit operates emergency shelter beds and transitional housing for victims in Amador County, population 38,000, an hour east of Sacramento.

Similar to her counterparts, Crabtree has a fully-funded program to get victims into long-term housing, though she says escalating prices and dwindling availability often render it moot.

“We’ve increased the stay-time at our safe house up to six months now, so we have more time to help the victims look for a place,” Crabtree said. “The problem is, too often there’s just nothing—affordable or unaffordable.”

The stakes around domestic violence were brought home for Crabtree’s community in June when, just across the river in Calaveras County, 27-year-old Desiree Licon was allegedly beaten to death by her fiancé, Jesse Almer. Licon’s family told The Calaveras Enterprise they were just now hearing from the couple’s friends about troubling incidents leading up to the killing.

A 2017 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly half of all female homicide victims in the United States are killed by an intimate partner.

Aware of how housing plays into such stats, Crabtree’s reached out to a network of real estate agents for help. Good intentions from them, she says, haven’t resulted in getting more victims safe yet.

There’s another issue at play. Many victims of domestic violence have seen their credit score and rental history completely compromised by their abuser. Not paying bills and running up debt can be used as a form of control. In other cases, victims simply aren’t aware of their spouse’s financial activity. Either way, in a hyper-competitive rental market, that often drops an application to the bottom of the list.

“It’s one of the most common things we find,” Crabtree said of the financial sabotage. “A lot of times the woman had no idea what was going on, and then it comes out after the separation. So, when they’re trying to reestablish their lives, that makes it even more difficult. I don’t think that’s something most landlords and property managers consider.”

Irlmeir agrees that educating landlords is vital to making headway.

“Even something as simple as not charging an application fee if you know it’s a victim of domestic violence would help,” Irlmeir observed. “They have really limited funds and having to pay for application after application makes it really hard.”

Whitefeather’s organization has been trying to get more Sacramento realtors and property managers interested in combating domestic violence. It’s even formed a second nonprofit toward that aim. Called the Foundation for a Peaceful Community, it’s tailored to raise funds for housing victims ACP is working with, along with hammering out lease agreements with local investors who specialize in flipping houses.

“We need the private sector to step up,” Whitefeather said. “This crisis is not just a crisis of low housing inventory, or of affordable rent, it’s a crisis of women and children staying in trauma—staying in danger—and we’re all going to pay a price for it down the road.”

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