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News / Nation & World

Domestic violence shelters move out of hiding

By Katheryn Houghton, KFF Health News
Published: June 4, 2023, 5:29pm
7 Photos
When Sara Young of Bozeman, Montana, fled with her kids to a domestic violence shelter, she found the secrecy of the old, green house that blended in with the neighborhood safe, but for some other residents ???it felt like being in prison,??? she says.
When Sara Young of Bozeman, Montana, fled with her kids to a domestic violence shelter, she found the secrecy of the old, green house that blended in with the neighborhood safe, but for some other residents ???it felt like being in prison,??? she says. (Louise Johns for KFF Health News/TNS) Photo Gallery

BOZEMAN, Mont. — Sara Young packed a bag of essentials, gathered her kids, and fled her home to a refuge: an old, green house that blended in with the neighborhood in this southwestern Montana city.

Nothing about the house identified it as a domestic violence shelter — it was hidden in plain sight. Young wasn’t allowed to give anyone the address. The secrecy made her feel safe. But her roommate, a young mom, struggled to care for her baby without her family there to help. 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 to be kept safe,” Young said. “For me, it was comfortable. For them, it felt like being in prison.”

The long-held standard for domestic violence shelters has been to keep residents in hiding at undisclosed addresses. That model stems from the belief that secrecy keeps survivors safe from their abusers. But domestic violence shelter directors have said keeping their locations secret has gotten more complicated, and the practice can isolate residents.

Now, some shelters are moving into the open. This spring, the Bozeman nonprofit Haven finished construction of a campus minutes off a main road leading into town that replaced the green house. Sun-catching letters display the nonprofit’s name on the side of the nonprofit’s new building.

There’s space for a community garden, yoga classes, and a place for residents to host friends. It’s within walking distance of grocery stores and an elementary school, and it borders a city park that’s a go-to spot for people to take their dogs or to fish.

Erica Coyle, executive director of Haven, said the nonprofit’s old shelter had been a not-so-well-kept secret for years in the city of more than 54,000 people. “Our job isn’t to rescue a survivor and keep them hidden away,” Coyle said. “What we need to be doing overall, as communities and as a movement, is listening to survivors and when they say, ‘The isolation of staying in a shelter is a big barrier for me.’”

Similar changes are percolating across the nation. In recent years, organizations in Utah and Colorado built public-facing shelters that connect clients to resources on-site such as legal services. A victim assistance organization in New York City has spent years laying the groundwork to create shelters that allow residents to invite friends and family over.

Rural states like Montana seem to be making the shift to open shelters ahead of urban areas. Kelsen Young, executive director of Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said that’s likely because it’s harder to keep a location secret in towns where everyone knows everybody. Shelters in Missoula and Helena made the shift years ago, and she said plans are in the works 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. “That still places the burden on the victim rather than placing the burden on the offender.”

No one is tracking how many shelters have shifted to an open model. Lisa Goodman, a psychologist and professor at Boston College who studies how to improve systems for survivors of violence, said shelters’ definition of “open” varies.

Some open shelters simply stopped trying to hide their address, allowing residents to get rides to work while buildings remain off-limits. Others allow residents to have visitors in their quarters or offer community spaces for gatherings.

“As the domestic violence movement used to be, it’s sort of bubbling up from the bottom,” Goodman said.

The earliest havens arose when women took other women into their homes. Starting in the 1970s, shelters were built on the assumption that secrecy is safest. But as shelters grew to serve more people, staying hidden became less practical as more survivors work and have kids who attend school. Not to mention the challenge of technological advances like phone GPS tracking.

Goodman said there is no national guide for shelters considering an open model. Each needs to weigh big questions, such as: How do shelters screen visitors to make sure they’re not a threat? How do they protect a survivor whose abuser is still loose and dangerous? And how do they balance residents’ independence with confidentiality for those who want it?

Moving into the open isn’t always an easy sell after decades of emphasizing secrecy.

In 2021, a once-hidden shelter in Colorado’s Vail Valley, a cluster of rural towns tucked amid world-class ski resorts, opened a new facility. The property comprises small apartments alongside services such as behavioral health, housing, and legal aid for residents and nonresidents alike.

Sheri Mintz, CEO of the Bright Future Foundation, which owns the shelter, said it took time to build buy-in. Some advocates against domestic violence worried the transition would risk survivors’ safety.

In response, the organization upgraded the shelter’s security system well beyond its former site. Police officers toured the facility to check for safety and create response plans for security breaches.

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“So far, we haven’t had any serious incidents,” Mintz said. “We have always had a situation where there are clients that might be victims of stalking. I don’t see that that has increased or changed in any way since we’re in this public-facing shelter.”

In New York City, Olga Rodriguez-Vidal, vice president of domestic violence shelters for Safe Horizon, said the victim assistance organization is still working to get funders on board with an open model.

There, the leadership hopes to create a mix of confidential emergency housing for people leaving a crisis, while allowing tenants in more transitional housing to decide whether they want visitors.

“This is very new and innovative and maybe a little scary,” Rodriguez-Vidal said.

In Bozeman, Haven has two buildings on its new campus. The first is a resource hub with employee offices, services for clients, and space for community events. Cameras attached to a security system can flag license plates registered to known abusers, and every visitor is screened before being buzzed in.

The new site allows for much more advanced security systems compared with what the nonprofit could use when trying to blend in with 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 property’s gardens. One side of the building includes therapy rooms for adults. One of those rooms has a view of a kids’ playroom so parents can get help while knowing their children are safe.

Haven’s housing, a short walk from the main hub, is still off-limits to anyone but staff members and residents to keep that space private. Survivors choose when and if they want to interact through events hosted next door. The driveway to residents’ housing 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’s happy there will be more space for residents compared with the house that was her refuge and that there’s easier access to services.

But Young is a little unsure about the idea of a public-facing shelter. She felt safe knowing the address wasn’t public for her ex to see. She liked that shelter neighbors didn’t necessarily know why she was there; she didn’t want to feel judged for having been in an unsafe relationship. But a public address wouldn’t have kept 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.”

Then again, Young said, maybe having the shelter out in the open will help whittle the judgment she feared, and help more people understand that anyone can find themselves trapped in unsafe relationships, and what to do when that happens.

She plans to watch how it plays out.

KFF Health News, formerly known as Kaiser Health News (KHN), is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs of KFF — the independent source for health policy research, polling and journalism.