by Cheryl Reed
Coburn Place, Indiana’s largest and most comprehensive provider of housing and support services for survivors of interpersonal abuse, is a national model of excellence for helping those who suffer domestic violence regain productive lives.
But Coburn’s leadership and staff aren’t satisfied with having helped more than 4,000 people escape dangerous home situations since the organization’s founding in 1996. They want to help other transitional housing programs succeed as well.
To that end, about 50 leaders from transitional housing programs in more than a dozen states joined a recent Zoom call to learn about Coburn’s policies and practices and which ones they should try to adopt.
The call focused on a study conducted by Cris Sullivan, PhD, professor of ecological and community psychology at Michigan State University and director of the Research Consortium on Gender-Based Violence. The analysis included site visits, records review, and interviews with Coburn Place staff and clients. Published in October 2019, Coburn Place: An Exemplar of the Domestic Violence Transitional Housing Model revealed five guiding pillars that Sullivan said are key to Coburn’s unusually high rate of successfully placing its clients in stable housing.
- Maximizing safety
- Building trust
- Eliminating financial and participation barriers
- Comprehensive and coordinated advocacy and programming
- Staff culture
Coburn Place in recent years has separated the duties of its team to ensure those who work with clients on things like getting a job, social services, and housing are not the same staffers who enforce housing or program rules or who specialize in other areas. That specialization—if programs can afford it—is key to building trust with clients who are in a state of trauma, Sullivan said. “Too often, social service staffers are expected to be ‘superheroes’—to know all the laws, all the services, all the clients, to operate the program and to fundraise, as well.”
Serving Persons, not Victims
That separation, along with a compassionate and passionate team, helps Coburn Place with the first two pillars. The third one, free transitional housing for up to two years, allows the clients to focus on saving money, getting licenses reinstated, paying down bills and gathering the resources necessary to rebuild their lives. For those with children, it’s an even bigger help.
Sullivan, who has made a career of analyzing transitional housing programs, said she was shocked to learn that many transitional housing programs don’t actually help clients secure housing—they’re focused on important services like providing immediate safe shelter and other services and hope that by solving those—or helping with them—the client can find housing on their own.
At Coburn Place, a housing advocate helps clients navigate the local housing landscape and acquire housing, and intervenes with landlords. But that’s not all. Examples of the hands-on assistance include an advocate who recently rode IndyGo with a client to help her learn how to use the city bus service. Another went to court with a client who was going through divorce proceedings. “What was really clear,” Sullivan said, “is that Coburn Place staff don’t view people as domestic violence victims. They view people as whole persons who have experienced domestic violence.”
Sullivan’s report also lauded Coburn Place’s intentional decision to invest heavily in its volunteer program and to build stronger relationships with volunteers and donors. “The formalized integration of the volunteer program into the staffing plan of the organization has also facilitated long-term relationship building and retention of volunteers,” she wrote. Between 1,000 and 2,000 people volunteer annually. Some volunteers even transition into staff positions.
Sullivan warned the group that the long-standing erosion of funding for transitional housing programs at federal and state levels will likely continue. She advised the audience to fight against cutbacks by using their success stories to explain why people who have suffered domestic violence need time to heal and to get their financial, mental, and physical lives back before finding permanent housing on their own for themselves and their families.
Responding to Community Needs
The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for everyone, but for those whose homes are unsafe due to interpersonal violence, it has been devastating. Coburn Place has served 1,196 clients since the beginning of March when the pandemic began—a 60 percent increase from the same time last year. Between March and September, 1,517 crisis calls were made to the Coburn Place hotline
With high demand for services, Coburn Place is looking to expand its portfolio of housing stock that includes 35 transitional apartments at its secure headquarters in the former IPS building at 604 E. 38th St. In an email, chief executive officer Julia Kathary wrote, “Months ago, as part of our long-term strategic plan, Coburn Place formed an expansion exploration work group consisting of key staff and board members.” She said the group is evaluating different scenarios including a land acquisition/new build or an acquisition/renovation of an existing structure to be used as supportive housing for survivors of interpersonal abuse.
“Our desired location for this additional space is within a few-mile radius of our headquarters,” Kathary said, adding that Coburn Place has no intention of moving out of Midtown. “We love operating along the 38th Street corridor for its central-city location, access to public transportation, and the neighborhood which we feel very much a part of. We very much hope that we can find the ‘right fit’ to add another facility within a few miles’ radius and are working to do that.”
Coburn Place has provided a letter of support to the Indianapolis Housing Authority to approve eight Housing Choice vouchers for the Broadway Park Apartments, a 30-unit apartment community planned across the street from Coburn’s headquarters at 3760 Broadway Street. If successful in obtaining the vouchers, Coburn’s Housing Advocates could provide prioritized referrals for eligible survivors it serves.
Another effort to expand the overall wellbeing of survivors is the focus of Coburn’s submission to Lilly Endowment’s Enhancing Opportunity grant program. After reviewing initial proposals, Lilly invited Coburn Place to submit a full proposal—one of only 36 out of a pool of 200 submissions the endowment received. Kathary said the proposal is not intended for any physical expansion but would expand programs and services and their capacity to serve more survivors. Complete proposals are due in January with the announcement of recipients expected in the first quarter of 2021.
Cheryl Reed lives and writes in the Canterbury neighborhood.
According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, intimate partner violence (IPV) is defined as “abuse or aggression that occurs in a romantic relationship.” An “intimate partner” can be current or former spouses and/or dating partners. IPV includes four types of behavior:
- Physical violence – when a person hurts or tries to hurt a partner by hitting, kicking, or using another type of physical force.
- Sexual violence – forcing or attempting to force a partner to take part in a sex act, sexual touching, or a nonphysical sexual event (e.g., sexting) when the partner does not or cannot consent.
- Stalking – a pattern of repeated, unwanted attention and contact by a partner that causes fear or concern for one’s own safety or the safety of someone close to the victim.
- Psychological aggression – the use of verbal and nonverbal communication with the intent to harm another person mentally or emotionally and/or to exert control over another person.
All people affected by interpersonal abuse, regardless of race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, or religion, qualify for Coburn’s services. If someone you know is in a physically unsafe environment, call 911. If they are in a safe, secure location, contact Coburn Place 24/7 by calling 317-923-5750 or texting 317-864-0832.