The beatings began after Isabella’s boyfriend lost his job in April, shortly after she gave birth to the couple’s second child. The abuse got worse as the pandemic persisted, with her boyfriend leaving their Ozone Park home for days at a time before returning to berate, threaten and assault her.
“He would disappear on us and he wouldn’t come home for days. Then he would come home angry and take it out on me physically, verbally, mentally, emotionally,” said Isabella, who asked not to use her last name for this story. “I couldn’t deal with it anymore and I had to leave.”
She moved between friends’ living rooms before finding space in a Flushing basement unit, a temporary home she can barely afford. She knows other women in similar situations. “My friends are going through this too,” Isabella said.
Thousands of New Yorkers flee their abusive partners each year, with domestic violence one of the main drivers of family homelessness in the city.
But the stress and seclusion of the coronavirus pandemic have further complicated an unbearable and potentially deadly situation for an untold number of families. Calls to the state’s domestic violence hotline have increased throughout the pandemic after an initial drop-off. Restrictions trap New Yorkers, predominantly women, with their abusive partners during an extremely stressful period, according to advocates and local law enforcement agencies.
“Most of the families struggling with this are hidden, and they’re not seeking help because they’re risking staying with their abuser over COVID, which people are afraid of getting if they leave home and go into a shelter,” said New Destiny Housing Executive Director Nicole Branca, whose organization provides housing for survivors of domestic violence.
The resulting economic and unemployment crises have also restricted the ability of victims to earn an income, forcing them to rely on their abusers for financial support — a common problem only exacerbated by the coronavirus.
“The inability to pay rent is going to make it harder for folks experiencing domestic violence to get out. They don’t have the economic ability to find their own place,” said Coalition for the Homeless policy director Giselle Routhier.
Isabella said she finds herself on the cusp of homelessness each month since leaving her ex-boyfriend.
She exhausted her savings on an Airbnb where she stayed for a few days in the spring. She next spent time on friends’ couches while her ex-boyfriend’s mother watched her two children. When her ex refused to let her see the kids, Isabella’s therapist called the Administration for Children’s Services.
ACS helped Isabella reunite with her children, now 2 years old and 9 months. She got an order of protection and found space in a friend’s basement apartment in Flushing at $800 per month — a steep fee for an illegally converted unit where she does not have a lease.
Her 2-year-old’s health needs complicate her ability to earn a living, she said. She spends several hours a week in a virtual early intervention program with the boy, who has autism, and she said can only work one day a week at a Manhattan pizza place. She said she has applied for food stamps and meager cash assistance, but those benefits have yet to come through.