Domestic violence shelters come out of hiding
Bozeman, Mont. — Sara Young packed a bag of essentials, gathered her children, and ran away from her home for shelter: an old green house that blended into the neighborhood of this town in southwestern Montana.
Nothing in the house identified it as a shelter for victims of domestic violence – it was hidden in plain sight. Young was not allowed to give the address to anyone. The secrecy made her feel safe. But her housemate, a young mum, struggled to care for her baby without her family to help her. Some residents couldn’t get to work because they didn’t have a car. Several housemates tried to sneak out at night for a break from curfews, locked windows and alarm systems.
“We were there because we needed protection,” Young said. “For me, it was comfortable. For them, it was like being in prison.”
The long-standing standard for domestic violence shelters has been to keep residents hidden at undisclosed addresses. This model stems from the belief that secrecy protects survivors from their attackers. But directors of domestic violence shelters said keeping their locations secret has become more complicated and the practice can isolate residents.
Now some shelters are moving in the open. This spring, the nonprofit Bozeman Haven completed construction of a campus just minutes from a main road into town that replaced the greenhouse. Eye-catching letters display the name of the association on the side of the new association building.
There is space for a community garden, yoga classes and a place where residents can host friends. It’s within walking distance of grocery stores and an elementary school, and it borders a city park that’s a favorite spot for people who want to take their dogs or go fishing.
Erica Coyle, Haven’s executive director, said the nonprofit’s former haven had been a not-so-well-kept secret for years in the town of more than 54,000 people. “Our job is not to rescue a survivor and hide them,” Coyle said. “What we need to do as a whole, as communities and as a movement, is listen to survivors and when they say, ‘The isolation of staying in a shelter is a big barrier for me.'”
Similar changes are spreading across the country. In recent years, organizations in Utah and Colorado have built public shelters that connect clients to onsite resources such as legal services. A victims’ aid organization in New York has spent years laying the groundwork for creating shelters where residents can invite friends and family over.
Rural states like Montana seem to be moving toward open shelters ahead of urban areas. Kelsen Young, executive director of the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said it’s likely because it’s harder to keep a secret location in towns where everyone knows each other. Shelters in Missoula and Helena made the switch years ago, and she said plans are underway elsewhere.
Gina Boesdorfer, executive director of the Friendship Center in Helena, said hidden sites force survivors into hiding instead of supporting people in their communities and regular routines.
“It really highlights a lack of other supports and resources in a community,” Boesdorfer said. “It always places the onus on the victim rather than placing the onus on the offender.”
No one tracks how many shelters have moved to an open model. Lisa Goodman, a psychologist and professor at Boston College who studies how to improve systems for survivors of violence, said the definition of “open” shelters varies.
Some open shelters have simply stopped trying to hide their address, allowing residents to commute to work while buildings remain off-limits. Others allow residents to have visitors in their neighborhoods or provide community spaces for gatherings.
“As the domestic violence movement was, it’s kind of seething from the bottom up,” Goodman said.
The first shelters appeared when women welcomed other women into their homes. Starting in the 1970s, shelters were built on the assumption that secrecy is the safest. But as shelters grew to serve more people, staying hidden became less practical as more survivors worked and had children attending school. Not to mention the challenge of technological advancements like GPS phone tracking.
Goodman said there is no national guide for shelters considering an open model. Everyone must weigh big questions, such as: how do shelters screen visitors to make sure they don’t pose a threat? How do they protect a survivor whose attacker is still cowardly and dangerous? And how do they balance resident independence with privacy for those who want it?
Moving out in the open isn’t always an easy sell after decades of privileging secrecy.
In 2021, a once-hidden hideaway in Colorado’s Vail Valley, a cluster of rural towns nestled among world-class ski resorts, opened a new facility. The property includes small apartments as well as services such as behavioral health, housing, and legal aid for residents and non-residents.
Sheri Mintz, CEO of the Bright Future Foundation, which owns the shelter, said it took a while to get membership. Some domestic violence advocates feared the transition would endanger the safety of survivors.
In response, the organization upgraded the shelter’s security system well beyond its former site. The officers visited the facility to verify security and create security breach response plans.
“So far we haven’t had any serious incidents,” Mintz said. “We’ve always had a situation where there are customers who could be harassed. I don’t see that increasing or changing in any way since we’ve been in this public shelter.”
In New York, Olga Rodriguez-Vidal, vice president of domestic violence shelters for Safe Horizon, said the victim support organization is always trying to get funders with an open model.
There, leaders hope to create a mix of confidential emergency housing for people emerging from crisis, while allowing tenants of more transitional housing to decide whether they want visitors.
“It’s very new and innovative and maybe a bit scary,” Rodriguez-Vidal said.
In Bozeman, Haven has two buildings on its new campus. The first is a resource center with offices for employees, services for clients and space for community events. Cameras attached to a security system can flag license plates recorded by known attackers, and every visitor is screened before being buzzed.
The new site allows for much more advanced security systems than the nonprofit might use when trying to blend into the neighborhood, Coyle said.
Inside, the building is designed to feel like a safe space for people who have experienced trauma. Each window has a view of what will be the gardens of the property. One side of the building includes therapy rooms for adults. One of these bedrooms overlooks a children’s playroom so parents can get help knowing their children are safe.
Haven’s accommodation, a short walk from the main hub, is still off-limits to anyone except staff and residents to keep this space private. Survivors choose when and if they want to interact through side events. The driveway to the residents’ accommodation is gated and private.
Sara Young was among the survivors who weighed in on the design of Haven’s new shelter, and overall she’s excited about the changes. She is happy that there is more space for the residents compared to the house that was her refuge and that there is easier access to services.
But Young is a bit unsure about the idea of a public shelter. She felt safe knowing the address was not public to her ex. She liked that the neighbors at the shelter didn’t necessarily know why she was there; she didn’t want to feel judged for being in a dangerous relationship. But a public address wouldn’t have stopped Young from showing up.
“I was desperate, I’m sure I would have gone,” Young said, adding that she wouldn’t have the stability she feels today without that help. “But I didn’t want anyone to know.”
Again, Young said, maybe having the safe haven out in the open will help ease the judgment she feared and help more people understand that anyone can get caught up in the trap in dangerous relationships and what to do when it happens.
She plans to watch how it unfolds.
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