Across Maine, there are hundreds of women who would flee an abusive relationship if they just had a place to go.

The same is true in communities large and small, urban and rural, throughout the United States, where the lack of affordable housing, and the threat of homelessness, often force domestic violence victims to choose shelter and financial security for their children over their own personal safety.

That is a weak spot in the fight against domestic violence, which has come so far in the last 20 years. In Maine, law enforcement has gotten better at recognizing domestic violence. Reforms to the bail system and greater attention by prosecutors have made it more likely that offenders will be held accountable, and kept away from their victims. Society as a whole is less likely to look the other way when confronted with abusive relationships that once were thought to be a private matter.

As a result, there are fewer incidents of intimate partner violence, and those who do suffer in an abusive relationship are more likely to seek help.

When victims take that brave, possibly life-changing step of picking up the phone, however, Maine has to do a better job of getting them out of danger.

STUCK IN PLACE

Lack of housing is the No. 1 reason women stay in abusive relationships, particularly when children are involved. If forced to choose between homelessness and keeping their children at home and in school, victims will stay home.

That puts the mother back in the line of abuse, and subjects the children to a violent environment, making it more likely they will be in abusive relationships as adults.

Ideally, they would leave, first to a shelter – going to live with friends and family often puts them in danger – then to permanent housing.

But the lack of affordable housing options means the victims who do find a spot in a domestic violence shelter, meant to be a short-term solution, often are stuck there, unable to afford to rent or buy a house or apartment.

In that, they are hardly alone. In both Augusta and Portland, for instance, 60 percent of renters are not able to afford the average, two-bedroom rent. If most households already struggle to pay their rent, imagine how much more dire the situation becomes when a victim of violence leaves, and is left without the income previously provided by her partner.

Housing authorities throughout the state give preference to domestic violence victims when issuing vouchers for housing, but there are simply not enough vouchers, for domestic violence victims or the population as a whole. Earlier this year, Augusta officials said the city had a waiting list of 675 people for federal housing vouchers, and the number would have been higher had the city not cut off new applicants because the list had grown too large. That’s the same issue facing housing organizations across the state.

OUT OF OPTIONS

So domestic violence shelters are filled with people unable to move on to permanent housing, leaving no room for those who want to flee their abuser. According to the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, 835 requests for shelter were denied in 2013, more than were able to be accommodated. In 2012, 1,056 were turned away.

For many of those victims, just reaching out for help required a great amount of courage.

All of the work on domestic violence – the increased awareness, the stronger laws, the hotlines and advocacy organizations – are there to create an atmosphere where the victim feels safe seeking a way out.

But now, more often than not, that way is blocked.