2009 Founders Fellowship

The 2009 recipient was Jennifer Soleil Rodrigue, a law student at the George Washington University Law School.

Personal Essay: Fighting for the Sanctuary of Home

Our homes are our castles, our sanctuaries, and our small circles of near-sacred privacy. But what if that home is a place of violence, threatened from within by broken peace and from without by broken rules? This summer, with the generous support of the Women’s Bar Association Foundation Founders Fellowship, I worked with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) in its efforts to protect the homes of victims of domestic violence.

NLCHP has positioned itself as the legal arm of the nationwide movement to combat homelessness. To drive this movement NLCHP uses all the tools of social change: education, outreach, coalition building, policy advocacy, legislative reform, and impact litigation. The NLCHP project areas are similarly far-reaching, and include Human Rights, Policy, Domestic Violence, Civil Rights, Children and Youth, and Pro Bono Services, providing direct representation through partnerships with local firms. Interning in an organization with such a comprehensive and coordinated strategy was both inspiring and educational. As one of only two summer law clerks for the organization, I was able to significantly contribute to NLCHP’s Domestic Violence project while gaining experience with each strategic tool in their arsenal.

Working with Cecelia Friedman-Levin, then the NLCHP Domestic Violence Attorney, illustrated for me how a dedicated advocate can weave initiatives together and exponentially increase potential impact through the power of partnerships. Ms. Levin welcomed me into every aspect of her project. I drew strongly on my experience volunteering with a domestic violence victim’s crisis hotline, and my ongoing pro bono work providing information and referrals through an email hotline with Womenslaw.org for a basic understanding of the issues. Armed with that experience, I dove into the study of the housing provisions of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and the morass of federal regulations governing an applicant’s access to federally subsidized housing programs.

Many agencies and organizations are interested stakeholders in the “VAWA 2010” revision process. The NLCHP worked to bring the divergent interests to the table, seeking to solidify the common ground between Project Based Section 8 site owners, public housing agencies, and housing and domestic violence advocates. Industry groups and public housing authorities expressed concerns about damages to property and the peaceful enjoyment of other tenants. Housing and domestic violence advocates focused on ways to ensure the safety of the domestic violence victim while maintaining shelter for her and her children, and directing accountability for problems onto the abuser. One core group worked diligently on improvements to VAWA language. Another centered on expanding timely access to subsidized housing for domestic violence victims. Weeks of my time were spent researching legislative and regulatory provisions and pinpointing problematic language. During other days I identified several regulatory provisions under which public housing authorities could provide domestic violence victims and their families with expedited access to assisted housing.

The coalition building, the careful fostering of partnerships, and the painstaking review and reworking of regulatory and legislative language was satisfactorily challenging, but remote from any perceptible effect on real women’s lives. Then, on July 20, 2009, I was able to assist with another aspect of NLCHP’s work: local advocacy and partnership building. That day Ms. Levin and I visited the Family Crisis Center in Brentwood Maryland where I delivered a VAWA housing provisions presentation and Ms. Levin nurtured a fledgling relationship between NLCHP and the Center.

The staff of the multi-site Center gathered for the meeting in a large training room dotted with round tables. Those in attendance included shelter counselors, advocates, an attorney and even the Center’s executive director. It was a milestone for me, and my happiness at being able to serve in this manner was nearly matched by my stage fright. Here I was, in my second summer of law school, doing the work of a social justice advocate! Somehow the immediacy of the situation made me conscious of my participation in a way that was very different than the hours I had spent laboring over regulations. This presentation to the Family Crisis Center staff was a way for me to directly promote the purpose of VAWA, by helping the Center staff understand the protections of the act and apply them on behalf of their clients.

As I nervously reviewed my notes, Ms. Levin gave a brief introduction, placing domestic violence in the broader context of homelessness. Then it was my turn. My challenge was to highlight the key areas of the VAWA housing provisions in a manner meaningful to direct service providers in just fifteen minutes. Essential topics of the presentation included the prohibition on denial of housing based on an individual’s status as a victim; impermissible and permissible grounds for eviction; methods of certification including the detailed requirements for certification by the signed statement of a service provider; confidentiality provisions and exceptions; housing authority notice requirements; and the discretionary responses available to housing authorities when faced with a situation involving domestic violence.

During the talk the Center staff responded positively, agreeing with the challenges remaining and nodding in recognition of some of the better known VAWA protections. At the most innovative portion of the talk, discussing the discretionary responses specifically allowed to local housing authorities and how this discretionary power might be leveraged for victims of domestic violence, several individuals began making notes. My oral presentation was supplemented by detailed handouts I had developed during the prior week, and which we distributed at the commencement of the meeting. In addition, we supplied the Center with sample certification forms and resource contact lists. From the attention and response we received I believe we were successful in our effort to deliver information on the explicit and mandatory terms of VAWA, as well as suggest tactics of creative advocacy in areas where VAWA’s purpose and discretionary provisions provide the impetus and backing for negotiation.

Our visit also seemed successful at beginning a closer partnership between NLCHP and the Center, to the benefit of both organizations. We specifically invited the Center and its staff to contact NLCP with any discrepancies it was observing between the requirements of VAWA and the act’s implementation. We also requested the Center relay anecdotes regarding their clients’ housing struggles under Maryland law. Receiving real-world reports on the practical applications (and violations) of VAWA, and of local law, is an essential aspect of NLCHP’s ability to accurately advocate for change. At the same time, the Center’s executive director asked that they be allowed to look to NLCHP for technical assistance on Maryland law and on VAWA issues as they arise. Taking part in this direct partnership building completed the circle of advocacy for me; from creating national coalitions, to advancing regulatory and legislative reform, to on-the-ground implementation, which would then inform the next phase of work by the national coalitions.

Through my summer with the NLCHP I learned first hand the extent of a social justice attorney’s work. This internship was invaluable to my personal and professional development, and it would not have been possible without the generous support of the Women’s Bar Association Foundation Founders Fellowship.


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