When we think about domestic violence shelters, we typically think of clandestine homes or buildings, the location of which survivors are sworn to secrecy to protect. Because if abusers know where to find their victims, well, no good is going to come from that.
But then Sarah Campbell, director of the Council on Domestic Abuse in Terre Haute, Ind., had an eye-opening moment. In one particular training session, she asked the woman leading the group: What do you see in other shelters that we could do to improve our services?
“She said, ‘Have you considered going public?’ Honestly, I hadn’t. It had never occurred to me,” Campbell says.
Campbell asked for a list of shelters in Indiana whose locations were public, and she called a half dozen of them. They all had positive experiences to report—they hadn’t seen any increased violence from abusers, and it was more convenient for survivors to come for shelter.
It was the compelling personal stories from survivors, though, that touched Campbell. One survivor said she didn’t know her town had a shelter until it went public. When it did, she drove by it a couple of times, and decided she could live there if she needed to. One day, she felt ready to go in for help. She parked in the lot for 10 minutes, got scared, and went away. She did that four more times before she went inside.
“Think of that impact,” Campbell says. “Had she not known the location, she was never going to go there.”
Campbell was convinced that going public was the right idea for her shelter, and she made the case to her board. Her shelter’s location became public in 2017.
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“Since we’ve gone public, we’ve had such great success. Countless survivors tell the same story,” she says.
Privacy Feels Safer for Some Survivors
Other survivors feel differently, though. Some survivors feel a greater sense of protection when a shelter is confidential. “That has been part of our experience. It’s important to take into consideration what residents feel,” says Barbara Paradiso, the director of the Center on Domestic Violence at the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs.
She points out that shelters having a public location isn’t a new idea. Some shelters were opening as public, or converting from confidential to public, as far back as the 1990s.
“It isn’t the norm. More shelters than not do keep their address confidential. I think that each shelter needs to make its own decision, and that decision should be based on their lived experience and the needs of their local community,” she says. “Programs care about the safety of the people they’re serving, and go about trying to enhance that safety in a variety of different ways. They need to choose which ways make the most sense for their community.”
There are a variety of pros and cons that domestic violence organizations should consider before deciding whether to keep their address confidential or make it known publicly.
Keeping Shelter Locations Confidential Is a Struggle
Campbell approached her shelter’s neighbors before their ribbon-cutting ceremony to fill them in on the shelter’s plans to go public. “Almost all of the neighbors knew what we were already. You can’t really keep it confidential,” she says. The shelter looked like an apartment building, but people knew it was a shelter.
There are various ways word gets out:
- Some survivors return to their abusers and disclose the location
- Survivors’ children and family members find out about the shelter
- Taxi drivers and rideshare drivers drop off survivors
- Abusers follow survivors after a custody exchange
- Neighbors observe activities and figure out that a location might be a shelter
- Search engines routinely disclose shelter locations
Public Shelters Can Connect with the Community More Easily
When a shelter’s location is public, the community keeps an eye on it. “There’s a really good community watch aspect to it,” Campbell says. “People who are driving by take a look to make sure nothing shady is happening.”
Neighbors keep watch, too. And Campbell said her shelter’s neighbors are willing to share their video camera footage if needed.
Campbell heard from survivors who said they wanted to seek help for years, but their abusers said they knew where the shelter was and would track them down. “Once it went public, between the community watch aspect and the police being two minutes away, it really encouraged people to come when it wasn’t a secret anymore,” she says.
Public Shelters May Be More Convenient for Survivors, Reduce Stigma
Campbell says in the past, survivors would have to walk four or five blocks to get a bus or meet a ride. Now they can walk out the front door and get picked up. “That makes a big difference when you have three kids and it’s the middle of winter,” she says.
Campbell also felt that making the shelter’s location public helped ease the stigma that can be attached to domestic violence. “We don’t want domestic violence to be a secret. We didn’t want the shelter to be a secret,” she says.
Paradiso knows of another community that philosophically didn’t believe survivors of domestic violence needed to hide. “They felt they could stand strong and stand proud in a community and maintain safety for one another,” she says.
Public Shelters Can Draw Volunteers and Donations
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Campbell says that more people are able to volunteer now that the shelter’s location is public. And groups can come in and offer activities. She says that her shelter now hosts substance abuse groups, financial literacy classes, cooking classes, makeup application sessions, and spa days. “We’re able to have a bigger variety of activities,” she says. They have also seen an increase in financial contributions.
Shelter Funding Might Be Tied to a Location Being Confidential
Some shelters receive federal funding that’s contingent on their location being private, Paradiso says. And that’s for valid reasons—there are many ways the location of a domestic violence survivor can be made public, putting them in danger. She says that survivors who have cases in court, who work with the department of social services, who vote, or who buy property can end up with their address becoming public. Confidential shelters give them an opportunity to keep their address private.
Shelters Can Strike a Balance
One organization where Paradiso worked had a shelter at a confidential location and an outreach center that served as their public face. And she knows of another community where they built a shelter right across the street from the police station.
“The bottom line is, communities need to make intentional decisions around what makes the most sense for creating safety for the individuals they are serving. That’s going to look different for each community,” she says.
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