Amplifying Survivor Voices: Stories on the Intersection of Poverty and Domestic Violence

Amplifying Survivor Voices: Stories on the Intersection of Poverty and Domestic Violence

Women experiencing poverty and domestic violence have long been made to feel invisible. They are constantly judged, treated differently and isolated from the rest of society. This project works to lift up the voices of these women—to finally give them a platform to share their stories. Through reading and learning from these narratives, I hope you will be inspired to take action in any and every way you can. Volunteer. Donate. Use your voice and privilege to advocate for change. Accept these folks as your neighbors, not as a problem, because you never know what someone may be going through. 


My name is Cate Bikales and I am a college sophomore at Northwestern University, where I am studying journalism and political science. Growing up in Portland, Oregon, I have seen firsthand how the city’s shortage of affordable housing has contributed to homelessness. I have also seen how the city has struggled to listen to the voices of those who are experiencing that homelessness. Decisions like the recent daytime camping ban, which went into effect on July 1, leave those experiencing homelessness with no place to go, especially when most shelters in the area are already at capacity. 

I am passionate about giving voice to the people who are being directly affected by these decisions—people who have long been overlooked and underserved by society. 

This is why I began volunteering with Rose Haven Day Shelter and Community Center in my first year of high school. Rose Haven is Portland’s only day shelter and community center that serves women, children, and gender-diverse people who have been most marginalized by homelessness and other intersecting traumas. Rose Haven serves an average of 150 guests per day, providing them with a safe, trauma-informed space and access to meals, fresh sets of clothes, financial help, laundry machines, showers, an onsite clinic and more. 

After completing a year of college, I have realized I am interested in going into the field of law, with a focus on women’s rights. So, I rejoined the Rose Haven team this summer as an intern with a specific goal in mind: to speak to guests about their thoughts on and experiences regarding the intersection between poverty and domestic violence. Thus, this project was born. Through my writing, I hope to amplify the voices of those directly affected by poor policies, and inspire our community leaders to take action by prioritizing those who have been systematically marginalized.

“Domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness in the U.S. for women”

Methodology and Outline

This project is based on guest testimonials conducted at Rose Haven in July of 2023. Guests were informed about the project I was conducting and chose to participate. Over the course of two, three hour days, I spoke with eight women about their experiences with domestic violence and poverty. Guests shared their stories, as well as ideas for how policymakers can decrease rates of poverty and domestic violence in Portland. Interviews were conducted in person and recorded, with permission, in order to be referenced when putting this project together. 

Seven of the eight women I spoke with have asked for anonymity due to the nature of their stories; however, one guest, Heidi Zieser, is eager for people to hear her story and her plans going forward. 

Thus, I will begin by telling Heidi’s story in full, before going into a summary of the thoughts and opinions of the seven other guests I had the privilege of speaking with. I will end my project with a summary of my thoughts, and a call to action. 

Please note that domestic violence and poverty can impact all genders. Due to the nature of my interviews, I will be focusing on the impacts of domestic violence and poverty on women specifically. 

“I go day by day, and I try to make each day the best day I can make it because I’m still walking this earth. I’m spreading my happiness.”

Facts and Figures

Domestic violence is a pattern of coercive behavior used by people to control and maintain power over their intimate partners. It comes in many forms, either physical or psychological. Both can have lasting impacts.

According to a study conducted by Multnomah County in 2019, 1 of every 7 women aged 18-64 was physically abused by an intimate partner. This means that almost 28,000 women in Multnomah County (13.9%) were physically abused by their partners during the past year. Numbers likely rose during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Many are unaware that domestic violence and poverty are directly correlated. Experiencing both at the same time can exacerbate the impact of the abuse and cause an exceptional loss of resources for the survivor. Additionally, when women experiencing domestic violence flee their homes, they are often left with no place to go.  Domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness in the U.S. for women.

It is important to note the racial disparities. National poverty rates by race were highest for American Indians and Alaska Natives (27.0 percent), followed closely by Blacks or African Americans (25.8 percent). A 2022 study by the Institute of Women’s Policy Research showed that Black women experience higher rates of domestic violence than any other race. It is unsurprising, then, that Black and Indigenous Americans are far more likely to experience homelessness than other groups.

Guest Testimonial: Heidi Zieser

“I go day by day, and I try to make each day the best day I can make it because I’m still walking this earth. I’m spreading my happiness.”

Despite enduring almost eight years of ongoing domestic violence from her abuser, 43-year-old Heidi Zieser maintains a positive, kind-hearted attitude toward life.  

Zieser moved to Portland from Dubuque, Iowa in April of 2017 with hopes of starting a new, better life—of “seeing the world.” But this dream was quickly shattered. Zieser stayed one night at Willamette Center Shelter but immediately felt uncomfortable and out of place. She and her boyfriend at the time eventually found a room to stay in at the Westwind Apartments in Portland’s Old Town. The abuse started soon after.  

Zieser immediately moved to a makeshift, self-built home in Tigard to get away, but the abuse followed.

“This gentleman just wouldn’t leave me alone,” Zieser said.

Zieser said the police department did little to help her. Her abuser was brought in with 40 charges against him, but was only sentenced for two. Instead of spending the five years in prison that he would have spent if charged for all 40, he only spent nine months. 

“I was so mad and angry about it—with him just getting away with everything,” Zieser said. “That’s the justice system. It looks down upon domestic violence and abuse victims.” 

In December of 2021, while still in prison, Zieser’s abuser got someone to burn her Tigard home down. In February of the following year, right after getting out of prison, her abuser burned down the second self-built home she was living in on 15th and Burnside, almost killing her and her dog.

Rose Haven was one of the few places that was able to help Zieser during this time, providing her with resources, food, clothes and a safe space to escape the abuse. However, Zieser said that this kind of support can only really help with the emotional scars, not the physical ones.

“Everything is so much harder,” she said. “My teeth and my body look so bad because my abuser has beaten me up so bad. I have burn marks all over me. He knocked my teeth out. People just judge really quickly.”

It was not only people walking by on the street who were quick to look down on Zieser. Five months ago, Zieser found out she was pregnant. She said the hospital neither told her she was pregnant, nor adjusted her medications to ensure the safety of the baby.   

“Folks that are living outside just don’t get treated the same way,” Zieser said. “It’s so hard.”

Zieser is currently living in Wisconsin, where she moved to once again get away from her abuser. Moving away has not made Zieser’s life any easier.

It was there that her neighbors tried to destroy her camper. It was there that she found out she had had a miscarriage. She had planned to name the baby Heavenly Rose, after Rose Haven.

Now, Zieser plans to return home to Portland. She has big plans for when she returns. 

“I want to make a GoFundMe and try to raise the money to get some innovations around Portland,” she said. “Enough money where I can go down and buy a big piece of property and put laundry [machines], showers, bathrooms, mental health support. A place where people can go and be safe and camp without getting messed around with by police officers.”

She plans to name the space Heavenly Rose PDX Foundation, in honor of her lost baby.

“This foundation will mean so much to me,” she said. “My unhoused friends and my unhoused community and family will finally have a safe place with access to a whole bunch of services.”

This is not the first time Zieser has worked to help her community. In August of 2022, Zieser helped arrange a street cleanup through We Heart Portland, a nonprofit that “organizes trash cleanups in our public spaces and offers resources to those in need,” according to their website. 

Through this organization, Zieser has also helped get homeless people off of the streets.

Zieser has faced massive hardship, but she said all she really wants is to help others, and to encourage people to listen to her story, and other stories like hers, before passing judgment.

“We are judged and treated differently from everybody else in the community,” she said. “But for a lot of us, it’s not our fault that we’re out there: domestic violence, evictions, criminal records, etc. People need to stop and realize that they can’t judge somebody before they know the real story.”

Additional Testimonials

blankHeidi Zieser is one of over 4000 guests who utilize Rose Haven’s services every year. Other guests shared their ideas with me about ways Portland can help both the homeless population, and the large number of people facing domestic violence. Many also shared with me why they believe it is so important for people to hear their stories.


Some guests offered solutions more directed towards domestic violence, while others discussed ways to fix Portland’s homelessness crisis.

Guest Testimonial #2


“Being able to come here is so helpful,” she said. “It’s nice just having the ability to come in and eat somewhere without having to watch your back—a safe space.”

One guest I spoke to told me about the 11 years of abuse she experienced. She said she tried to report the violence to the police, but they never listened.

“Even though there was evidence—it looked like there was a softball sticking out of my head from him hitting me—they didn’t do anything,” she said. “It’s just one of those things in life. His family had money and I didn’t have money, so they didn’t take me seriously.”

She said this intersection between poverty and domestic violence is far too common. She said the justice system should start taking domestic violence victims more seriously.

“Our lives should matter just as much as a man’s life matters,” she said.

She also said experiencing domestic violence, such as hitting or harassment, can make things like keeping a job extremely difficult. This makes it difficult to be financially independent. She said that, as someone already experiencing financial instability, that makes life just that much harder.

One solution she suggested was for the city to build and fund more domestic violence shelters where women can access resources, get help and “wind down.” She noted that Rose Haven is one of the few places that have given her that space.

“Being able to come here is so helpful,” she said. “It’s nice just having the ability to come in and eat somewhere without having to watch your back—a safe space.”

Guest Testimonial #3

Another guest talked to me about her experience with PTSD following an abusive first relationship and watching her mother experience 30 years of battering.

She said this trauma is directly related to the poverty she experiences.

“The long term effects of my PTSD have directly inhibited me—I’ve had to leave employment because of triggers,” she said. “I’ve been adversely affected by [my violent relationship] for decades. I’m 55 and it happened to me when I was 28, and I’m still affected by it.”

She said that one way domestic violence shelters and women’s shelters could help domestic violence victims would be to educate their guests about PTSD, and to provide services to help women experiencing it. She said getting an education about PTSD has helped her to adapt to living with it.

She said the biggest way community members can help people experiencing domestic violence is by understanding their misconceptions related to abuse. 

“A lot of [people] view women that stay in relationships as unwilling to get out of it. They don’t understand that usually a batterer makes you think that you need them to survive,” she said. “People need to be educated about that and not be as judgmental towards their peers that are trapped in those situations.”

Guest Testimonial #4


“There’s a lot of people that I know would be able to help but don’t because they think that they need to do something big, but it doesn’t have to be. I appreciate even a smile.”


The next guest I spoke to discussed how her experiences with her abusive girlfriend have led her to where she is now: living with her elementary-age son in a shelter and struggling to keep her job.

She said she believes it is extremely important for people to hear stories like hers.

“Some people may not ever experienced [homelessness or domestic violence], but they’re still able to help,” she said. “There’s a lot of people that I know would be able to help but don’t because they think that they need to do something big, but it doesn’t have to be. I appreciate even a smile.”

She said Portland’s top officials can help to serve domestic violence victims and people experiencing homelessness by asking them directly what they need, not by deciding on solutions on their own.

“It would be helpful [for Portland’s leaders] to create partnerships with places like Rose Haven,” she said. “Then they could ask people like me directly, ‘What can we do to help?’”

Guest Testimonial #5

I spoke to a guest who said she has been “violated” in many ways, including suffering through two abusive relationships and finding out five of her family members had been killed.

She said people should hear her story “so they don’t have to suffer what I suffered.”

She said she has taken the trauma from these experiences and channeled them into doing good for the world. She encourages other survivors to do the same.

“If you are abused and violated by your parents…you do one of three things,” she said. “(i) You become a drug addict, (ii) you become a perpetrator of domestic violence and child abuse yourself, or (iii) you do what I did: you become a human rights activist; you become a humanitarian.”

Guest Testimonial #6

One guest told me that she had to leave Portland because the domestic violence she was facing was so bad. She said that people tend to turn a blind eye to those that need help.

“I had a gun to my head. People were around—they saw me. They didn’t do anything,” she said. 

While she struggled to come up with a solution to the domestic violence issue, she offered a solution to Portland’s homelessness issue.

“The community thinks they’re creating change by putting all this money and everything into creating more committees, more departments, etc,” she said. “But the money is not going to affordable housing, and if it’s not going to housing, it’s not going to be successful.”


Guest Testimonial #7

The next guest I spoke to said she did not get justice when she brought her abuser to court. 

She said she feels it is important for people to hear the opinions of those experiencing domestic violence and homelessness firsthand. She said she hopes it will influence local government officials to make real, positive change.

One suggestion she gave that she hopes Portland City Council will take into consideration is providing a space for people to camp if they are not allowed to camp on the streets during the day. She also suggested offering domestic violence victims more easy access to resources.

“Offering people services is the first step,” she said. “I mean, you can’t force someone to take help, but they might accept it.”

Guest Testimonial #8

The final guest I spoke to cried as she exclaimed her thoughts on the abuse domestic violence victims face: “They’re hopeless. They should be able to get the help they need before it gets to that.”

She said that abuse victims and those experiencing homelessness are at a severe disadvantage to those who have food, water and a safe space to live readily available to them. 

“The city needs to be providing people equal access to what they need—transportation, housing, etc.,” she said. “They need to help people take that step to get where they need to be.”

She also said how important she thinks it is for regular people, not just people holding powerful positions in government, to withhold judgment against those who may not look perfect, or those who are living outside.

“People should keep looking for the good in people, and I think all of us should feel happy if we help someone,” she said. “Even by doing something small. Sometimes the small things get overlooked. You never know what someone is going through.”


I came into this project hoping to hear the stories of those who have experienced domestic violence and/or homelessness. I got that, and so much more.

Each guest I spoke to was so kind and passionate about their ideas, and so interested in telling me their story. When I began conducting interviews, I thought I would be lucky if I was able to get even two people to speak with me. I was able to speak to eight. This was not just luck. These women were eager and willing to share their stories.

They want people to know their stories so that these people can understand what domestic violence victims and unhoused people go through.

They want people to know their stories in hopes that people will withhold judgments before hearing the whole story.

They want people to know their stories so that people can use them to develop solutions that will actually help, not harm, unhoused folks like them.

After hearing these guest’s various struggles, from not being taken seriously by the institutions and systems they put their trust into (i.e., police, hospitals) to simply feeling like they are not being seen or heard, I have come to realize just how important this project really is. 

I want people to read these stories and take what they have learned to heart—to implement it in a positive way.

To those who may pass someone struggling on the street, do not be so quick to judge. Oftentimes, it is not the person’s fault that they are where they are. And remember, small acts of kindness mean a lot. You never know what these people have gone, and continue to, go through.


To Portland’s city leaders, listen to these stories and remember them. Keep them in mind when you are making decisions that might affect these people. Help create more spaces where domestic violence victims and unhoused people feel safe. And provide more funding and resources for spaces like that that already exist. Places like Rose Haven.

Rose Haven helped save Heidi Zieser’s life, and it continues to do so today. Rose Haven is helping the seven other people I spoke to for this project, and so many more. Domestic violence and homelessness are rampant in Portland, but places like Rose Haven mean so much to those going through tough times.

If you would like to make a donation in honor of Heidi and the 4000 guests Rose Haven serves each year, please visit Rose Haven’s donation page.  

I would like to end this project with a few quotes from the guests I spoke to about what Rose Haven means to them. I hope you will be inspired to create more safe spaces in Portland for women like Heidi and the others to feel safe and welcome.


“[Rose Haven] has saved my life—having a safe place where women can meet without threat. A lot of times a woman with PTSD will go to access services but get freaked out just being in the presence of some men, so they’ll deny themselves services to avoid those triggers. So places like this make a huge difference.” 


“Rose Haven means a lot to me. They have done so much for me, especially people like [Development Director] Liz Starke. Liz is one of the best people out there. I love her to death. Rose Haven is a big inspiration to me and just talking to people like Liz makes my day when I’m sad.”


Rose Haven really provides so much for women, even without any external/governmental support [outside of donations].”


“[Rose Haven] has helped me with transportation and some of my bills and things like that. It’s a place where I can just sit and calm down. It’s a much appreciated space, but there needs to be more places like it in Portland.”


Further Reading: