“We Had a Vision,” Pria Sibal’s Year in Review

Working in a remote setting has been a battle between recharging our energies and settling into new boundaries. As a team, we are exploring what it has meant to shift work that we never could have imagined as anything but in-person, to a virtual setting. We have found both new challenges and possibilities in the process. In reflecting on the past year of virtual adjustments, we sat down with our colleagues to dive into their year, and discuss what made 2021 a memorable year for them.

[author] Pria joined Sakhi as a volunteer in August 2015. Pria has a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in English Literature from Delhi University. She then began a career as a journalist and documentary film producer. Starting in the nascent broadcast news industry in India in 1993, she moved on to directing travelogues and documentaries based on human interest stories. Her experience as a journalist with leading Indian broadcasters gave her an analytical scope. Her love for research and desire to make a social impact gave her that extra push to make documentaries. Pria believes every career professional reaches a point where they desire unconventional returns from a job and had the desire to create value in society in her own modest capacity. As part of the Sakhi team, she is committed to empowering women as she feels no woman should be in a situation where she feels inadequate or helpless. She can be reached at . [/author]


  • Pria, can you walk us through your experience in 2021? What stands out to you as particularly memorable?

We’ve written and discussed what transpired in 2020 at length, but nothing could have prepared us for the devastation of that year. Survivors were telling us horror stories of abandonment, forcefully being pushed out of their homes, and economic devastation, while anxiety and depression were becoming widespread pressing issues.

Yet, there was hope at the end of the year in 2020. Sakhi had gotten the HUD grant to further support our Transitional Housing Program and we knew that we were going to build out that program to be more robust, as I stepped into the role of Housing Manager at the end of 2020. We were moving toward a program that would better equip survivors to take more control over their lives. I was feeling driven and hopeful about creating the best housing resource that I possibly could. Our program was still in a nascent phase in 2020, but the need for housing had skyrocketed. Rents are so high in the city. It is the biggest reason why folks go back to abusers. The eviction moratorium has been great, but there was and still is a lot of anxiety about paying rent. We knew that having a robust program that offered affordable housing options to survivors who are looking for safe, accessible, and sustainable homes would become even more of a priority.

What was most exhilarating was building the program from scratch. We had a vision and we set out to see it through.

We received numerous housing-specific grants of various sizes and started enrolling folks in May of 2021. Transitional housing, which offered longer term assistance, was at capacity and was going well, and then we started giving short-term rental assistance through smaller grants. Up until this summer, I was an Economic Empowerment Advocate. I thought we’d have another advocate to replace me, but it took a long time to find the right person, so I was straddling two roles for six months. As a result my excitement started to wane – my engine was failing, I was driving at 120 miles per hour. The excitement turned into anxiety. My manager gave me a lot of support, but I was doing everything on my own. I built the housing program, and I am very proud that today, we have close to fifty clients enrolled in housing after just seven months. That offers me a great sense of pride and joy. It really feels like my baby and now I am seeing it grow. I have that maternal pride, it’s a great feeling.


  • It’s incredible that the Housing Program has grown so much, so fast. Can you share a bit more about how our Housing Program works? What is available to survivors and how does Sakhi guide them in finding housing?

The Housing Program will receive a referral from any other team, Anti-Violence, Economic Empowerment or Counseling. Once I get the referral, I talk to the advocate who has sent the referral to learn more about the survivor and what they’ve been through. Then we schedule an intake. Our process is highly informed.

We need to know about the survivor’s housing needs and their employment status and history. Employment prospects are particularly important, as many housing grants and vouchers are related to or contingent upon one’s employment status. HUD, for example, is a sliding scale grant. We support folks with 100% guaranteed rent for the first six months, and then clients will start contributing, little by little, to the point where, at 24 months, they are sustaining their own rent. The sliding scale HUD grant, for that reason, is a grant where we need to see folks’ employment status/prospects. When we do a vulnerability assessment and an economic and financial assessment, they give us a sense of what a survivor’s needs are and of which grant program would suit them best. There’s transitional housing, in which the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) Funding covers 100% of rent for two years; HUD is sliding scale, and others offer shorter-term housing assistance. We have some requirements when working with folks in this program, including that rent must go directly to the landlord, and we need to be able to document our financial assistance.


  • What does the process of finding a home look like?

Essentially, we match survivors’ needs to the available program options. Often, when an abusive partner has left, or when a survivor leaves an abusive relationship, the survivor experiences a reduction in income. As such, we offer three to six months of rental assistance. Folks who come to us sometimes have a job, but they may not make enough to afford their rent in full––if we put them in HUD, they can use the two-year period to flourish.

We encourage folks to look for apartments themselves as well, and move forward once either we or the survivor find a suitable home.

There are a small handful of brokers who are signed by confidentiality, with whom we have established a relationship, and I work with them to find homes. I explain that we are helping survivors financially, but the money has to go to the landlord directly from Sakhi. The landlord will eventually know that Sakhi is involved and it’s easy to find out what we do. I have that conversation each time; the survivors with whom I work need to be comfortable knowing that that is possible.

The survivor lets us know when they’ve found a place, and then we help them move forward with it. Once every quarter we schedule a budgeting call, to check in and see how they are doing and discuss how they can make the most of the program. Often they want our help with saving and budgeting. There are some clients who don’t want to have the budget conversation because it’s triggering to them. Although we haven’t reached this stage as yet with any of the survivors in our program, once a survivor exits the program, we have a post-program plan in place to check in with them.


  • How have you seen COVID-19 affect yourself? And survivors with whom you work?

Last year, the worst impact of Covid on me, was that, when I saw so much suffering – people who were abandoned, forced out of homes – I would be getting ready to go out somewhere, on a weekday or weekend, and I just felt that clients needed me 24/7, and I wanted to be there for them. I felt like I needed to be available for them, but Helen had to walk me through believing that they are survivors and they will survive.

One time, I was ready to go somewhere, and a client called and was so upset, and I was riddled with guilt, and meanwhile, she was going through so much.

Later, when I reflected, I realized that I can’t put my partner through what I’m experiencing either. That’s not fair. I started blaming myself for having my partner experience my moods and emotional difficulties as well. It took a lot out of me to feel comfortable realizing that I am only doing a job. That it could not have that impact on my life. It took a lot of therapy to feel comfortable in that realization.

There were two cases that hit me hard this year, but with coping mechanisms and a practice of boundary-setting in my pocket, I bounced back much more quickly. Back in July, I was taking two days off and was traveling with my partner. At the end of the week in June, I got a referral from an AVP advocate; a survivor was experiencing terrible abuse, she wasn’t working, her three daughters were in their teens and twenties. Her oldest was in college and had a great job. Her daughters were making it, finally, coming from an economically-disadvantaged background in Pakistan. Her daughters were her priority; she had oriented all of her life decisions around their opportunities.Her house caught on fire, and her two older daughters were lost in the fire. When the survivor regained consciousness, she was in hospital. Her younger daughter had undergone two surgeries because she had so much smoke in her lungs that she couldn’t even speak. The doctor said to the survivor, “you have suffered a lot and ingested so much smoke; it is miraculous that you survived, but you lost your two eldest daughters.”

The hospital transferred her to a hotel with her younger daughter after two weeks in hospital. They then needed to move immediately. So at the end of June, I worked with her and we managed to find her a place in just twelve hours. The turnaround time was shocking. The broker happened to have a place, the same day the survivor went to see it, and the broker prepared everything. On July first, she moved.

The second client was living in a basement house during Ida. Often, a lot of clients go with South Asian landlords who offer up basement homes that are illegal and unregulated. This client was in the basement and it flooded to the point that she lost everything including her jewelry, clothes, all of her cash, her papers (immigration and otherwise). She had nothing. Just the clothes on her back.

The landlord, instead of helping, retaliated. She called FEMA and when they came, they said ‘sorry this happened to you’ etc., but then the landlord came and turned it around so manipulatively that FEMA concluded that everything was fine and that this survivor just needed to relocate to a shelter. This was super traumatic for her; her anxiety was so extreme, and it was affecting my anxiety as well. I felt her trauma vicariously. Within a week to ten days, she found a home herself, we supported her move, and she has been recovering since.


  • Where and how have you experienced growth in this past year, either of yourself, or the world around you?

I feel like I have been at this alone. We still don’t have a Housing Advocate on staff, and yet I feel like we’ve managed alright. The biggest lesson that I took away from the last year and a half, broadly two years, is that my self-care was totally neglected. I felt so driven by the fact that I wanted to make an impact, but I was also alone. I was so head-down into serving clients, that I felt like my health took a beating. Toward the end of last year, my health was not good, I did not feel well. Especially with Vidula’s encouragement, I had a wake up call. I knew I would not be useful if I was not well myself. I started to implement boundaries. If I am going to be there for clients, I have to be there for myself first.

The biggest learning was looking after myself and my care. There are some cases that engulf me, that are difficult for me, but then there’s a recovery period, where I retreat for myself. And then I come back with energy. I do meditation, I chant, I have started exercising. Last year, I was depressed, the environment was bleak. This year, somehow, I’ve felt very upbeat, and hopeful, even when I’ve been overwhelmed. I’ve been happy, joyful, and have a sense of anticipation that we’re moving toward normalcy.