How Survivor-Led Advocacy Works

We say “survivor-led” a lot around Coburn Place, but what does that mean? It means we have many programs available to survivors, but we don’t require them to participate in any of them to receive help. We don’t reward them for attending a support group, for example. Someone who has left an abusive relationship doesn’t need to feel like they are being controlled in other ways, so there are no strings attached. We gently encourage them toward resources we think will be beneficial, but it’s their choice and on their schedule. “Some people never go to a support group, and that’s OK,” says Vice President of Mission Impact Shawnta Beverly. “Survivors are the captains of their own lives.”

The first thing we do when we connect with a survivor is assess their risk and figure out a safety plan. We know from research and our experience in the field that survivors are most in danger after they leave their abusers. Typically, we meet with them face-to-face at Coburn Place, or a park or coffee shop. Mobile advocacy has always been one of our tools, but for now it’s mostly what we do. There are lots of phone calls, video calls and texts.

Survivors are assigned both a well-being advocate and a housing advocate. Those used to be the same person, but survivors told us that addressing both pieces at once can be overwhelming. Now they have two people in their corner.  Survivor-led advocacy means we’re asking them, “What does a good life look like to YOU?” It gives them back some control to have a plan – one that addresses immediate concerns and also looks to the future, and it helps them focus. “Sometimes one little piece of stability in the chaos is very uplifting,” says Well-Being Advocate Sam Ryan. “It’s hard to face homelessness and hard to leave an abuser.”

No two plans are alike, just like no two people are alike. Each survivor in one of our 35 apartments has one. Each survivor in community-based housing has one. Each survivor on our waitlist has one. Some plans are simple. Some are multifaceted. They are all holistic because that’s what makes up overall well-being – addressing housing, physical health and emotional health.

A plan could include action items like continuing education, getting a job or a driver’s license, building credit, having an eviction expunged or finding childcare. Sometimes it’s more therapeutic, like how to co-parent with an abuser or deal with trauma or depression. Most of the time, it’s a combination. Our advocates are up for anything – taking an IndyGo ride to help a survivor learn routes, providing moral support at a court appearance, touring apartments in the community, or helping file an order of protection. “Some survivors need a lot of hand-holding, and some are more independent,” says Sam. “We follow their lead.”

Coburn Place offers support groups with licensed therapists – virtual at the moment. There’s one for kids, a domestic violence support group and one called New Beginnings, which focuses on how to break the cycle and live a positive life.

Other resources available to all our survivors – including program graduates – are emotional support, bus passes and what we call “budget busters,” items like diapers and food they can request when they’re short on money. In normal times, they can use the fitness center, laundry room and computer lab, and their kids can participate in our Children’s Services programs and activities.

A recent graduate perfectly illustrates the growth we love to see. She lived at Coburn Place for two years with her children. She worked multiple jobs and managed to save $17,000, helping her to secure a safe home and financial stability for her family. When she moved into permanent housing, she even turned down the $1,000 in moving expenses we told her we could provide. That’s empowerment.