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Peg Hacskaylo created a haven for survivors of domestic abuse

The District Alliance for Safe Housing (DASH) in Washington, D.C., provides a launching pad for restarting women's lives.

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Peg Hacskaylo, seen here in the community room at the District Alliance for Safe Housing (DASH) in Washington, D.C., helps women in need.

David Karas

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In 2006, the math was not adding up for victims of domestic violence in the District of Columbia. While city police received tens of thousands of calls reporting such instances each year, there were a mere 48 beds dedicated to survivors around the nation’s capital.

For women who also had other challenges – such as addiction or mental health issues – there were even fewer options.

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“The city, at that time, was desperately in need of increasing the amount of housing available to victims,” recalls Peg Hacskaylo, a veteran of working in domestic violence housing programs. “The community had advocated to get more funding for domestic violence victims, and they had put money into creating this housing ... [but] nobody was stepping up to the plate.”

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So Ms. Hacskaylo decided to step in. She founded the District Alliance for Safe Housing, which has become an innovator in providing access to safe housing, premised on the belief that it is a right for everyone, something that helps victims and their families begin to rebuild their lives.

“When we started DASH, it was really important that we create something that is accessible to everyone, regardless of their situation,” Hacskaylo says.

Hacskaylo had worked in housing programs before, even doing volunteer work as a college student, and had served as deputy director of a city shelter. There she had discovered shortcomings in the system. “Women who had other kinds of needs, in addition to the domestic violence that they were escaping, were being screened out of programs,” she says. Being excluded often left the women either homeless or meant they had to go back to their abusers.

With that in mind, DASH was designed to change the prospects for victims by providing a safe space that would take into account each individual’s needs. Most survivors, Hacskaylo says, have a plan in mind, but they lack a safe launching pad from which to put their plan into action.

Today, DASH operates out of a rehabbed brick apartment building in a residential neighborhood. The property features 43 efficiency apartments, each with a full kitchen and bathroom – an environment that stands in stark contrast to the communal living common at many shelters. This living situation, she says, helps prevent the conflicts that often arise in communal living. It also fosters individual growth, as well as a high degree of autonomy.

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DASH straddles the line between an emergency shelter and a conventional apartment building. Residents enter into a lease and work through a property manager, who enforces compliance with rules and regulations. Unlike most shelters, DASH allows residents to have visitors, and no curfew is imposed.

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Residents can consult advocates who provide individualized help, as well as counselors for addiction and other challenges, if needed. Programs for children, a garden tended by the residents, and a range of other offerings – including Zumba, cooking, and writing classes – are available.

While residents can stay rent-free for as long as two years, Hacskaylo says that the average stay is just 13 months – an indication that the program is helping in their recovery. “We are able to develop relationships with them on their terms in a way that is really empowering,” she says.

In 2014, DASH provided more than 100,000 nights of safe housing, removing individuals and families from the threat of violence. About 331 recipients – 152 adults and 179 children – were safely housed, and another 352 women and families were prevented from becoming homeless through its Housing Resource Center, an initiative that assists violence survivors in navigating housing and community services.

[Editor's note: The original version of the above paragraph incorrectly described the Housing Resource Center.]

Zeke Williams, vice chair of DASH’s board of directors, lauds Hacskaylo as a “social entrepreneur” whose innovative, experience-based approach is drawn from her work both in government and nonprofit groups.

One of Hacskaylo’s latest initiatives is the Survivor Resilience Fund, launched in 2013 as a means to provide emergency relief to victims of violence. “There were a number of survivors who really were in a position to keep their own homes,” she says. “They just needed a little help making that happen.”

The financial assistance provided by the fund takes a number of different forms, but typically helps with a security deposit or rent, including back rent an abusive partner might not have paid – all working toward ensuring financial independence for the women supported in the program.

To date some 85 women have received assistance through the fund. Research indicates that the approach has been effective at keeping abuse survivors housed.

The approach is also cost-effective, Hacskaylo says. Compared with the average cost of $26,000 per person to provide housing for a year, the Survivor Resilience Fund can help a survivor for roughly $2,300 a year.

DASH’s approach has attracted the support of Kathleen Maloy, who, along with her spouse, runs a small charitable foundation. After learning of Hacskaylo’s work, Ms. Maloy’s foundation provided grants to support DASH’s housing and has made a three-year, $100,000-a-year commitment to help support the Survivor Resilience Fund.

“We were immediately struck and inspired by her vision for DASH,” Maloy says. “DASH creates space for the woman and her family to start to recover [with] some peace, safety, and calm. DASH represents the approach our society and government should take ... if the goal is to support sustained recovery from domestic violence.”

DASH’s approach has been shown to be especially effective, says DASH board member Amy Myers. Abuse survivors “usually come to service providers after they have been in long relationships in which someone has taken power and control away from them,” she says. “Peg is ... putting clients back in control of their lives.”

A current DASH resident, who asked to remain anonymous, suffered abuse from her former partner that only intensified after she became pregnant. With no close family, having spent most of her life in foster care, she had nowhere to turn. “Being here at DASH is renewing my energy and my spirit to do what I’ve been wanting to do,” she says.

She had lived at another shelter in the past, and she says that DASH provides more safety and security, and that the atmosphere encourages individual progress.

“Whatever you want to do, they will help you do it on your time,” she says.

While DASH has experienced success, the journey has not been without challenges, Hacskaylo says. She noted the financial difficulties at the time of its founding.

“Given that DASH was so young and relatively unproven, securing funding from diverse grant sources was slow,” she says. “Once the recession hit, many of those funding sources began to dry up.”

The funding squeeze came just as reports of domestic violence were spiking and other organizations that helped victims were closing. Having survived that “perfect storm” of challenges, Hacskaylo says, DASH emerged stronger and more resilient. Today, as funding has gradually approached pre-recession levels, DASH wants to grow existing programs and develop new ones to tackle the growing need.

Hacskaylo says she has been inspired by the dedication and passion of her staff. And regardless of the praise she has received for her work, she attributes all the credit to the domestic violence survivors themselves.

“All I am doing is providing them with the support and resources to be who they want to be,” she says. “They are the ones making it happen.”
• Learn more at www.dashdc.org.

How to take action

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Children of the Night is dedicated to rescuing US children from prostitution and providing education and mental health services. Take action: Volunteer around the US.

Shirley Ann Sullivan Educational Foundation wants to eradicate poverty through education and protection of children and youths. Take action: Provide a classroom with a child protection advocacy kit.

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