The legislation directs the Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-based Violence and the Department of Social Services to establish a new fund and dispense modest grants to survivors of domestic violence.

John McCarten/NYC Council Media Unit

Queens Councilmember Tiffany Cabán introduced the legislation and rallied for its passage outside City Hall Thursday.

Survivors of domestic violence in New York City will soon have access to modest emergency grants that will help cover the cost of housing and other needs under a new measure passed by the Council Thursday.

The legislation, introduced by Queens Councilmember Tiffany Cabán, directs the Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-based Violence (ENDGBV) and the Department of Social Services (DSS) to establish the fund and dispense modest grants to qualifying families and individuals, like New Yorkers who have stayed in domestic violence shelters or sought services through the city’s Family Justice Centers.

The exact amount of the proposed fund and the maximum total of each grant will likely be determined ahead of the city’s budgeting process next year, but a pilot program introduced by ENDGBV early in the COVID pandemic offered 377 “microgrants” averaging $1,243.37 from June 2020 to May 2021, according to an evaluation. All told, the program dispensed about $470,000 that year.

Cabán said the bill, part of a legislative package intended to support domestic violence survivors, is the “first program of its kind” and builds on the ENDGBV initiative. She said the legislation is inspired by a 2019 report issued by then-City Comptroller Scott Stringer, which found that domestic violence was the leading cause of family homelessness and urged the city to create a “survivor housing stability fund” to meet immediate rental assistance and rehousing needs.

READ MORE: Hundreds of Families Forced from Domestic Violence Shelters into Strained DHS System Each Year

“Being able to materially support survivors immediately in the moment of most acute need, we can’t stress how important that is,” Cabán told City Limits Wednesday. “Part of being independent is having the resources you need around you.”

The ENDGBV pilot program evaluation determined the initiative faced challenges, including sifting through more applications than expected, but met “the acute and unique needs of survivors of domestic and gender-based violence in New York City.”

Forty percent of service providers who administered the grants said the program helped clients remain stably housed or covered rent, while 48 percent of recipients reported feeling safer after receiving the modest sums, the 2021 report added.

“This will materially make them and our city safer from violence,” Cabán said. 

Last year, New York City’s five Family Justice Centers—one in each borough—served 13,272 individual clients, with Queens accounting for about a third of that total, according to a Council committee report on the grant legislation. The centers provide safety planning, legal services and other programs for survivors of domestic violence.

Thousands of families enter the city’s domestic violence shelter system each year, according to DSS records, but, as City Limits has reported, more than half end up being discharged from those specialized facilities into the broader Department of Homeless Services (DHS) system. At least 41 percent of families in DHS shelters had fled domestic violence, according to the 2019 report by the comptroller. Many end up returning to their abusers rather than remain in shelters.

Nicole Branca, executive director at the housing agency New Destiny, said the small grants often enable recipients—primarily families headed by women of color—to find and maintain stable housing. New Destiny has issued the so-called “low-barrier grants,” typically totaling around $1,000 to $2,000, to help cover back rent, utilities and childcare costs in a pinch, Branca said.

“We’ve seen it make all the difference [in] allowing a family to stay in housing rather than go into shelter,” she said.

The key is ensuring people can access the money immediately. Branca said she issues checks directly to landlords or daycare providers on behalf of the applicant. 

“You can’t do this through a reimbursement process three months later,” she said. “At that point, they would have lost their housing.”

Branca, a former city housing official, said she also hopes the grant program approved by the City Council will fund community-based organizations that provide aftercare services, such as case management, to formerly homeless families who enter permanent housing. 

The bill received six “No” votes, from Republican Councilmembers Joann Arriola, Joseph Borrelli, David Carr, Vickie Paladino and Inna Vernikov, and Democrat Bob Holden, a conservative who often sides with Republican colleagues. 

Borrelli, the Council’s minority leader, said he was concerned that people will be able to “self attest or for a community organization to attest that they were victims, without any criminal charge, to access city funds for housing.”

He said he and conservative colleagues support the concept but think survivors of domestic violence should only qualify if they press charges against the abuser.

“Prosecuting domestic violence is as important as preventing it,” Borrelli said.

Holden’s chief of staff, Daniel Kurzyna, also said the bill to provide small grants needs a  “mechanism for verification of a domestic violence incident.”

“It does not require someone to report or have an incident investigated by law enforcement agencies,” Kurzyna said, adding that the current measure “invites fraud.”

Existing state programs provide compensation for survivors of domestic violence who first report the abuse and work with police and prosecutors. But many advocates, including Cabán, cite a number of reasons why survivors may decline to press charges: they could be financially dependent on their abuser, fear additional retaliation or hesitate to get law enforcement involved because of their immigration status. 

Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, and several Democratic lawmakers, hailed the legislation on the Council floor.

“We must work to create a safe environment where survivors have access to resources and services that promote health and safety,” Adams said.