SHELTERS AND SAFEHOUSES
Over the course of the last two decades,
battered women’s shelters in the United States and Great Britain have encountered
many of the same challenges currently faced by shelters in CEE/CIS. Although
the way in which shelters developed varies from country to country, a description
of the experiences of shelters in the United States and the strategies used
by these shelters to address administrative, institutional and advocacy challenges
can be used to inform current discussions of shelters in CEE/CIS.
The United Nations views the provision
of shelter and other services as a critical part of states’ obligation to
protect victims of violence. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action,
for example, calls on governments to “[p]rovide well-funded shelters and relief
support for girls and women subjected to violence, as well as medical, psychological
and other counselling services and free or low-cost legal aid, where it is
needed, as well as appropriate assistance to enable them to find a means of
subsistence.” Where states have failed to ensure the availability of adequate
services for victims of domestic violence, however, such services are generally
provided by NGOs.
The Shelter and Safehouse Movements
The shelter and safehouse movement
in the United States began in the early 1970s. Two of the earliest shelters
were Women’s Advocates in Minnesota and Transition House in Boston. Women
who were concerned about domestic violence or were themselves victims of domestic
violence came together and decided that one of the most critical issues facing
victims was the absence of alternative housing. Many of these early groups
began by housing women in advocates’ own homes for one or two days. Safehouse
networks continue to this day, and are a viable alternative to temporary housing
when establishing a shelter is not feasible.
Shelters in the United States and
in Great Britain have historically operated under one or more founding philosophies:
philanthropic, bureaucratic, therapeutic and activist. Shelters having a philanthropic
approach often grew out of movements to address poverty and homelessness,
and are focused on providing individuals with the basic necessities of food,
shelter and clothing. Shelters with a more bureaucratic approach mirror civil
service organizations and are focused on coordinating the various agencies
that deliver services to battered women. Shelters with a therapeutic approach
are more closely tied to a mental health model and focus on providing battered
women with therapy and counseling. Shelters with an activist approach take
a broader view of the problem of domestic violence and is concerned not only
with the physical and emotional needs of individual battered women but also
with the societal structures that allow the continuation of wife abuse. From
R. Emerson Dobash & Russel P. Dobash, Women, Violence and Social Change
Shelters in the United States have
taken different approaches to solve some of the challenges they face in their
Locating funding for a shelter is
a priority at the shelter’s founding and throughout its life. Women’s Advocates,
for example, began fundraising in 1973 with a letter campaign; the women in
the group mailed letters to friends and acquaintances, outlining the plans
for the shelter and asking for donations or monthly pledges. The response
to this mailing of approximately four hundred letters generated almost $700
a month. Women’s Advocates then began to submit funding proposals and grant
applications to local and state governments and private foundations; the shelter
received a grant the following year for staff salaries and grants from foundations
in subsequent years.
Women’s Advocates also asks residents
for small contributions to their room and board. Because even a few dollars
a day can present a real hardship to some women, the shelter also makes it
clear that women will not be turned away if they cannot pay. In general, the
shelter has found that women do what they can to meet the cost of staying
at the shelter. Women’s Advocates also sought contributions from local welfare
agencies, but negotiated with the local government to ensure that women were
not later penalized for these payments from the government to the shelter.
Length of Stay
Some shelters have limits on how long
a woman can stay, some do not. The longer a woman is allowed to stay, the
more time she has to gather the resources that she will need to protect herself.
At the same time, however, the longer the women stay, the fewer women who
can be housed in times of crisis.
Shelters that do not limit the length
of a stay note that most women will return home or find alternate accommodation
when the crisis has passed; in CEE/CIS, however, the ability of women to find
alternate accommodations may be limited by the shortage of available housing.
Other shelters limit the length of a resident’s stay, or reach individual
length-of-stay agreements with residents based on the resident’s needs and
how quickly she anticipates being able to find other housing.
Some shelters are able to combine
temporary shelter with transitional housing options; women stay in the temporary
shelter at first, but move, after a time, to longer-term transitional housing
where they may stay for a year or two until they find permanent alternate
Finally, a shortage of housing may
simply make it too difficult to provide temporary shelter to women in crisis.
Many advocacy groups in the CEE/CIS region operate crisis
centers and hotlines as alternative ways to
provide assistance to women in crisis.
Developing policies that both ensure
the residents’ autonomy and also foster order within the shelter can be difficult.
Where necessary for the shelter’s existence and residents’ well-being and
safety, rules are entirely appropriate.
At the same time, however, rules should
not be so restrictive as to endanger women or undermine their ability to protect
themselves. The residents have likely just left relationships in which they
did not have control or autonomy; it is critical that the shelter does not
replicate that dynamic by trying to control all aspects of the residents’
conduct or denying them the ability to make choices about their lives. One
shelter visited by Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights while researching
domestic violence in Poland, for example, controls residents’ mail, prevents
them from taking outside jobs, requires them to work for the shelter, forces
them to deposit money with the shelter administration, and prohibits them
from leaving without permission. From MAHR, A
Report on Domestic Violence in Poland
44 (2002). Rules that severely restrict resident autonomy do not empower
women to evaluate their options and make the decisions they need to make
Residents of a shelter often contribute
to the shelter’s maintenance. Some shelters develop rules that require certain
levels of participation while others seek women’s participation on their own
terms. Women’s Advocates addresses resident participation by developing a
task list and then asking each woman to choose a task that she prefers to
do; she is not assigned a responsibility by someone else.
Linda A. Osmundson, Executive Director
of Florida’s Center Against Spouse Abuse, provides a thoughtful discussion
of these issues in her article, Shelter
Rules: Who Needs Them?. Based on her experience in running
a shelter, she cautions against overly-stringent rules. She maintains that
before instituting new rules, shelter staff should ask: “Is this rule respectful?”
and “Does this rule increase safety?” The rule should be instituted only if
the answer to both questions is “yes.”
Some shelters work to ensure resident
security by keeping the shelter’s location a secret; residents and staff are
instructed not to reveal the address of the shelter. Many women are stalked
and killed by their former partners after they leave. Being able to keep their
location a secret not only protects women from these batterers but can also
enhance their feeling of being safe.
Efforts to maintain an unknown address
can be difficult, however, and are often frustrated by outside parties. Some
government agencies where women go to seek financial or other assistance may
not keep the address a secret. Some schools, after receiving the address where
the woman and her children are staying, have policies of calling the woman’s
husband to inform him of his wife and children’s location. Attempting to keep
the shelter location a secret can also be difficult for children, who may
not understand why they cannot say where they are living. The logistics of
a secret address are also difficult for the residents; they may have to walk
a number of blocks before they may call a cab or access public transportation
in order to avoid revealing the location of the shelter.
Other shelters have adopted an open
address strategy. Women’s Advocates, for example, switched from a secret to
an open address. They believed that maintaining an unknown address increased
residents’ feelings of insecurity and powerlessness. Another shelter in Minnesota
adopted an open address policy because they had found that keeping the location
a secret reinforced residents’ feelings of shame and humiliation in connection
with the violence. The positive relationship Women’s Advocates has developed
with its neighbors also helps to further resident safety; the shelter’s neighbors
are aware of the residents’ security concerns and often inform the shelter
if they notice suspicious activity.
In open address shelters, while residents
do not generally reveal their location to their husbands, the shelter’s address
is listed in the local phone directory and on shelter brochures. Some shelters
that have the advantage of being a part of a network of shelters can move
a resident from one shelter to another if her batterer discovers her location.
In these networks, while the locations of the individuals shelters are known,
the locations of the victims are not. Other shelters that do not have the
advantage of working in a network will move a woman to safe locations (i.e.,
safehouses), such as an advocate’s apartment, if she is located by her abuser.
In some contexts, cultural consideration
may counsel for the adoption of a safehouse approach or an open address policy.
In documenting domestic violence in Uzbekistan, for example, Minnesota Advocates
for Human Rights found that there was no precedent for married women to spend
a night away from home in a strange place, especially one with an unlisted
address. That kind of an “arrangement could create suspicion and lead to a
woman being thrown out of her home.” From MAHR, Domestic
Violence in Uzbekistan
The actual location of the shelter,
however, is critical. A location near public transportation lines allows women
to visit the necessary agencies or law enforcement offices. Not all shelters
should be located in large cities; rural women often suffer from severe isolation,
may not be aware of the existence of a shelter, or may not be able to reach
Security and Confidentiality
Shelter security is a vital issue
for the residents; women may be in serious danger of being found and harmed
by their partners. Security concerns can be addressed in a number of ways.
First, shelters should take precautions to protect residents’ safety and confidentiality
such as not disclosing information about residents to anyone and restricting
access to resident files. (Residents should be able to access their own files,
Where funding is available, shelters
have installed electronic security systems. Women’s Advocates, for example,
has a security system that can be activated from any floor of the house. Yet
security systems are only as useful as the police that respond to alarms,
and like domestic violence victims, shelters may not receive adequate protection
from police. Women’s Advocates, for example, found that the police arrived
thirty to forty minutes after they were called because their calls were classified
as “domestic disturbances.” The women met repeatedly with the local police
department in order to obtain a more immediate response to its calls for assistance.
Although these meetings were unsuccessful, the shelter eventually obtained
better responses from the police department by lobbying the mayor’s office.
Finally, to increase resident safety,
Women’s Advocates also worked with a city attorney to create an agreement
between the city and the shelter that stated that the shelter had the right
to deny fathers access to the property even though their children were staying
at the shelter.
Shelters in the United States focused
on supporting and assisting battered women and did not initially pay much
attention to the needs of the children who arrived with these women. Gradually,
however, they learned more about the effects of domestic
violence on children, and began developing special advocacy and
support programs designed for children.
Different shelters organize themselves
in different ways; the organization of a shelter should be driven by the shelter’s
specific needs. For example, Women’s Advocates operates as a collective; there
is no hierarchical division of labor, and all staff members participate in
decisions equally. In its first few years of operation, all staff participated
in all tasks equally; now, the shelter’s work is organized by task forces
for business and administration, children’s programs, and women’s programs.
Women’s Advocates notes that while the task force structure has increased
internal efficiency, it has reduced the flow of information within the organization.
In addition, the new structure does not allow (or require!) staff to develop
new skills as readily as was possible when all staff participated in all tasks.
Other shelters have a board of directors
that makes the long-term, directional decisions for the shelter, while day-to-day
decisions are made by staff (either in a collective or hierarchical structure).
Often, this board is structured to reflect the ethnic composition of the community
served by the shelter, to ensure that decisions are attentive to the needs
of the clients. Other shelters have combined a board composed of residents
and staff that makes long-term decisions with another board that provides
guidance but has no decision-making authority.
Some shelters require staff to have
professional training, some do not. Most, however, provide on-the-job training
for both staff and volunteers. Staff and volunteers generally receive training
when they start working at the shelter; most shelters also provide “in-service”
training at monthly, quarterly or bi-yearly intervals. Shelters also provide
staff and volunteers with opportunities to exchange information and experiences;
these opportunities should happen more often than training, and can, for example,
be part of a weekly or bi-weekly staff meeting. Trainings are also vital in
ensuring continuity of information; while this may not be as crucial if there
is low turnover, such efforts are absolutely necessary when new staff is beginning
to make sure institutional knowledge is not lost. Ensuring that staff have
opportunities to exchange experiences with one another also helps to guard
against staff burnout.
Adequate record-keeping can serve
a number of functions for shelters and safehouses (as well as for hotlines).
First, an initial description of a new resident’s
situation can be made available to staff members, so that staff members who
may not have been present when the woman arrived do not need to ask the resident
again about her situation. Second, this information helps advocates remain
up-to-date on the needs of battered women in the community. Third, these records
can be an important advocacy tool. Documenting the number of women who use
the service, for example, can help establish a need for the service that can
be used in funding applications. Statistics can also be useful in conducting
community education efforts; they can help to further the public’s awareness
of the prevalence and seriousness of the problem.
Different shelters offer different
services; some offer solely temporary housing, while others also provide health
care services, legal advice, job training and counseling. Most offer women
assistance in obtaining social and medical services.
Adapted from Women’s Advocates,
The Story of a Shelter (1980); National Coalition Against Domestic Violence,
Guidelines for Starting