Naomi Stern
Georgetown University Law Center
EJA Fellowship Recipient Summer 2000
Domestic Violence Program Director, National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, Washington, D.C.

“For an individual who is in a violent relationship and already living in poverty, this harsh reality often means that she must choose between life with her abuser or life on the streets.”

Naomi Stern never wavered from the path she set for herself. Ever since she was a teenager, Stern says, she knew she wanted to work for social justice. “I studied social science in college,” she says, “volunteered a ridiculous number of hours on various causes—often leading the charge—and worked on social policy issues after graduating.”

A law degree seemed the next logical step, so Stern attended Georgetown University Law Center. She wasn’t sure, however, what exactly she wanted to do – until the summer of 2000, when Equal Justice America granted her a summer fellowship at the Washington, D.C. organization Ayuda, Inc. Ayuda provides bilingual legal services to the local immigrant community in the areas of immigration law and domestic violence and family law.

“I had worked or volunteered previously in the areas of family law, child abuse and neglect, education, social policy, and economic justice,” Stern says. But never before had she worked so specifically on the issue of violence against women. The EJA-funded experience changed her life.

Stern, herself from a family of immigrants and refugees, had recently learned to speak Spanish. That summer, she worked full-time in Ayuda’s bilingual domestic violence legal clinic, assisting clients with petitions for civil protection orders and related family law matters.

“It was amazing to work directly with women who were so brave in coming forward to seek legal help, against tremendous cultural, linguistic, and economic barriers—not to mention the life-threatening dynamics of abuse that trap so many women in these relationships in the first place,” Stern says.
Now, she manages the Domestic Violence Program at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in Washington, D.C. “As a staff attorney there,” Stern says, “I work at the national level to improve access to housing for domestic violence survivors and their families.”

Domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness nationally, she points out. Between 22 percent and 57 percent of homeless women report that domestic violence was the immediate cause of their homelessness. Often, domestic violence survivors become homeless after being evicted as a result of the violence against them.

To make matters worse, Stern says, there’s a severe shortage of affordable housing for low-income individuals and families in the U.S. Federal housing assistance programs, including public housing, subsidy programs and emergency shelters, are all underfunded, under increasing political attack, and insufficient to meet the rapidly growing need. “For an individual who is in a violent relationship and already living in poverty,” Stern says, “this harsh reality often means that she must choose between life with her abuser or life on the streets.”

Despite the lack of funding and support from the federal government for her work, Stern says, she’s glad to have the chance to fight domestic violence. “I love that I am able to work on the cross-cutting issues of women’s rights and economic justice,” she says.

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