Monday, May 20, 2024

The City Council should vote yes on the Cambridge Heart proposal on Monday because it is one critical piece in helping end domestic violence.

Over the past few months, we have been invited into several conversations about what public safety looks like for survivors of domestic violence with the City Task Force to Reimagine Public Safety and the Black Response Cambridge. The focus of these conversations have been about who responds and how and when a survivor makes a call for help. As an agency that has been supporting survivors of domestic violence for more than 40 years, we would like to share our vision of what public safety means for the people we serve. That vision begins well before a call for help and continues months and sometimes years after.

Survivors need viable options, and domestic violence is a problem that affects the whole community. To address it we must expand our thinking about the root causes of violence and acknowledge that solutions to violence exist outside the criminal legal system. We are interested in a well-rounded community approach to increase public safety in Cambridge by working together to end domestic violence.

The Cambridge Police Department has a domestic violence unit and two civilian domestic violence advocates who work tirelessly to support survivors. They are a resource to many, but in spite of their best efforts, there are many survivors they will never reach. At Transition House, we see the very real fears and concerns that survivors have about engaging in systems. The fears of processes and penalties attached to law enforcement (criminal proceedings, open cases with the Department of Children and Families, immigration, loss of housing, etc.) keep people from calling the police for help. Help is still needed.

We see the Cambridge Heart model as another option to provide that help. Our hope is that it would be one of many available to survivors. For this reason, Transition House is proud to sign on as supporters of the proposal to address needs of survivors of domestic violence with community based, non-carceral services.

The immediate issue facing the City Council concerns creating a new first response to some calls for help that go to the 911 dispatch system. We hope the city will move forward to do so. But the first response is just that. We must build up the resources and systems available after that first response.

We, therefore, also hope that the city and our elected leaders will take decisive action in building systems for our community that meet the needs of all residents, and create innovative responses to problems that have remained ingrained over time. Innovation is necessary precisely because the same problems have remained ingrained over time. If we want to see major shifts, we all have to be willing to do things differently and explore all options.

Many coordinating systems need to be in place for those harmed, and those causing harm, for progress and relief from violence to take place. Healthy relationships must be discussed and taught in schools, community centers, hospitals, communities of faith, workspaces, etc. To end domestic violence we must all know what it is, understand the forms it takes and learn how to intervene. We must invest financially in learning from, and teaching our community.

The lack of access to permanent housing in Cambridge is a barrier to the safety of families. Survivors are forced to choose between the dangers of home and the dangers of homelessness. As cited in a study by the Cambridge Community Foundation, Cambridge is ranked No. 1 in rental costs, with 50 percent of the lowest-earning people in Cambridge spending more than half their income on housing. This is a failing of our community, and a way that it permits violence. We ask that the city make major investments in building subsidized housing to give survivors the options they need.

Another necessary point of intervention is the hospital. Our local hospitals do not have adequate services dedicated to domestic violence, though we know survivors and the people who harm them walk through their doors daily. All major Boston hospitals have invested in domestic violence programs. It is a great pity that we cannot say the same here in Cambridge.

As a movement, the domestic violence field has chosen to ignore, demonize and/or seek punishment for people who have caused harm. This has been to the detriment of all. To end domestic violence, we must work with those who cause harm. Programs that serve this population have been historically and drastically underfunded. Emerge and Common Purpose are highly successful, nationally known programs right here in Cambridge that struggle to fully fund their programming. We must invest in creating intervention points for people who cause harm well before the situation has grown volatile enough to involve the court. We need more spaces where people who cause harm can be supported to change and be held accountable for their behavior. We must normalize and encourage people to seek that support through resources such as the Ten to Ten hotline launched in Western Massachusetts.

We do this work because we know our vision can become a reality. It means all of us as a community being willing to do what is necessary to end domestic violence and create safety for survivors. Safety is so much more than a phone call.

Sarah Gyorog, executive director of Transition House