She Escaped An Abusive Relationship In Her 60s — & This Program Changed Her Life

Photographed by Kara Birnbaum.
Ideally, home should feel warm. But for the 10 million people who experience domestic violence every year, home can be a scary and unsafe place. 
On average, nearly 20 people in the U.S. are physically abused by an intimate partner every minute. As COVID-19 continues to spread across the country, forcing people to stay indoors, that number may be growing. Estimates suggest that three months of quarantine could result in a 20% rise in intimate partner violence, according to the United Nations Population Fund. Although in some cities calls to hotlines have been less frequent throughout the pandemic, experts tell The Marshall Project they believe that’s because people have fewer opportunities to reach out for help. Their abusers may not be leaving the house to go to work, for instance, removing a critical window that could allow them to break free.
During the “Night Of Solidarity,” a fundraising event on May 13 that helped raise money for domestic violence prevention organizations (full video here), survivors shared their stories. To bring more awareness to the issue, we interviewed Vondell West, a 67-year-old woman who credits DASH (the District Alliance for Safe Housing) in Washington, D.C., with helping her turn her life around after leaving an abusive partner. This is her story.
My name is Vondell West and I'm 67 years old. I'm a native Washingtonian, I was born here, and a mother of three with five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. After completing the DASH program, I was able to get my own place. Here's how it all started.
I was in a relationship. We had known each other for about three or four years before we moved in together. But when we moved in together, things changed. He had had one of his legs amputated because he had diabetes, and he was receiving his disability and his retirement and I was working as a volunteer at the time. So one day, I asked him for bus fare to go to work and he told me he didn’t have any. Every time I began to ask him for something, he didn’t have it.
One day I just came out and asked him what’s up, and he said, “I’m not giving you nothing.” So, that kind of threw me for a loop. From then on anything I wanted or needed in the apartment, I had to get on my own. That went on for a while.
As we went along, there was no communication in the house, he didn’t want to talk about anything. I was on his telephone plan. And one day, my phone just didn’t work. He had taken me off the phone plan and had not told me. And when I asked him about it, of course, he lied. He lied about it.
Then, it was verbal abuse every day. Nothing I did was right. Everything that went wrong in the apartment was my fault. All kinds of little crazy things. And this went on for a while.
And then, one day, I was carrying groceries all the way from Northeast to Southeast on the bus and the train. When I stepped off the bus, he rode right past me with a woman in the car. It was so close I looked right in his face; I could tell you what she had on and everything. When he came home, I tried my best not to say nothing because I knew I was gonna get real angry. I asked him about it. Of course, he lied. He said he didn’t give nobody no ride. And I kind of lost it then. So, my eyes was wide open by then.
She started coming to the house. I would go out in the morning, and the car was missing. I had gave him money — at this point, I was earning some. I had helped him to get a car because we had both needed transportation. So I had saved up as much as I could, and I gave him $500 towards the down payment — and yet I’m carrying groceries and I’m traveling by bus and by train, and he’s riding this person around.
He would no longer pick me up from the subway when I worked. And if I wanted to go to the grocery store, I had to get up at 6 in the morning, 'cause he had other things to do. That was just too much. At this point, the neighbors started asking me who was that driving the car. Stress had started to build up. I’d try to sit in the house when I came home and not say nothing at all, because I was afraid things was gonna get out of hand.
Then, one day, I had just had knee surgery and I came home and she was at the door. That day I think we both kind of lost it, things just flying around the house. He was hollering that I need to get out, the sooner the better, and all that kind of stuff. He even took me to court to get me out. I wasn’t making that much money, and I couldn’t afford an apartment on my own. So, it took me a minute — I couldn’t just leave.
At the time I was working as an interim counselor, so I had helped refer people to different organizations for help. I went to one of these centers for my own problem, but they turned me away. I went back to work and I sat at my desk and was about to cry, and I guess the good Lord told me to go back over there. And that's how I was referred to Ms. Zaneta Greene.
She came to my office and we talked, and that’s how she told me all about the program for domestic violence. And it was such a blessing. She told me it is a process and I had to be as patient as I could. She asked me did I need immediate assistance and I thought I was okay. I was just going to trust the process, and thank God I did.
When we went to court, the judge gave me 60 days to leave the premises, and the call came from DASH just after we went to court. So I was able to leave within my 60 days. And that’s how I got to DASH. I first started speaking with Ms. Zaneta during the summer, and I moved into DASH in January. I ended up living there for two years, until January 2020.
One thing I hope people take away from my story is that there should be more laws protecting people who are not legally married. Just because you’re not married legally, no piece of paper, it seems like you have no entitlement. Because there are a lot of us.
Leaving the relationship was very, very challenging. As an older woman, you would think that you could see things differently. You would think that two people at our age would know that communication is important and just to be able to deal with punches and not be so in a hurry to have things your way. I had stood by him through his surgery and his rehabilitation, and a long time even after that. I was expecting nothing else, just give me time to get out.
It was also very, very challenging because it was at a time in my life when I really did not want to once again ask my family for help, at my age. I didn’t want to become another burden to them, because it’s somebody else’s mess. And it was challenging because I felt, probably just as much as he felt like he wanted to hurt me, like I really wanted to hurt him. But I knew at my age, I’m too old to go to jail, and I used to be a drug addict. I could not go backwards after all the hard work I had put in to change my life around and to be a better person.
I was also in a position where I didn’t have a lot of money saved up. I had a lot of credit card bills. I had bought furniture when we moved in, trying to make the place nice and homey for both of us.

I don't think I would have been able to survive if I didn't have my advocate to talk to. She didn't press me or push me to do anything. It was always at my time, when I was ready.

Vondell West
I never saw the apartment at DASH until the day I moved in. And then, they took me up to the unit. The minute I walked in, I felt 20 pounds of relief leave me. The place was clean. It was freshly painted. It was a godsend. I was extremely happy. Because I like everything tidy and clean, the apartment just exceeded all of what I was looking for. I really, really felt blessed.
The whole staff was so professional and friendly at all times. Somebody was at the desk when I came out in the morning to go to work and we would say good morning, and everything was good. Somebody was there when I came home in the evening and it was a joy to come home.
We took all kinds of classes, like on financial management. I took every class they offered, because I wanted to get to meet the other residents of the building so we could better support each other. Because I already knew how important that was. Because you could get behind your closed doors and try to lock everything out, but that wouldn’t be helpful at all.
The classes were so helpful because they inspired me, and it also reminded me that that was only a temporary spot. I was just passing through DASH. My goal was to get my own place.
The first year, I signed up for every apartment waiting list there was. I spent my first year paying off bills, saving up my money, looking for a place. I also continued talking with my advocate. I don’t think I would have been able to survive had she not been available to me to do that. There were things that I wasn’t ready to talk about, and there were things I needed to talk about. And she didn’t press me or push me to do anything. It was always at my time, when I was ready.
There were so many blessings in coming to DASH. I could walk to work, I was so close to my job. So for two years, I was able to not only walk to work to save money, but get exercise. I had got so comfortable there, I didn’t want to move out. And I felt like I had created a new family because somebody was always there for me. Always. Always there to listen or help me if there was something I need. I knew that I had to move out because it was a two-year program. But I felt that I was ready because it gave me all of the opportunities to work on my emotional wellbeing while I was there.
I had already had childhood issues. My mom gave me away when I was an infant. So, I knew that I had abandonment issues. Anytime somebody goes through something like that, it’ll kick up instantly. I don’t care how long you’ve been clean, how well you think you’ve got everything under control, they just pop up instantly. So, you know, I felt like I was abandoned again. But then again, I had all that time to work on those emotions.
Now, I’m living in a brand-new senior building. It is really nice. I wasn’t able to get my furniture yet because the stores closed down on me with coronavirus, but as soon as they open then I can go and make a couple of purchases. Other than that, God is still looking after me. I’m able to work from home, so I’m still getting a paycheck. I'm now a case manager at a substance abuse treatment center. I still keep up with my support group so if there’s anything that I need to discuss or get off my chest, I call somebody right away and we do that.
I have been in D.C. all my life and I’ve worked with many organizations. But I have never, ever encountered an organization as great as DASH, all of its volunteers, the monitors, the advocates, the staff. They really put their heart into that program. 100%. They try their best to help you.
Where can you go and live for two years and not pay anything, and it’s nice and clean? It’s absolutely beautiful, the love, and the people that contribute to it — they think about all of the residents. You can feel the love, the concern, the sincerity. Every day. It is a wonderful program. Absolutely wonderful.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224 for confidential support. 
This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.

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