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This article was originally published in 2015. It was updated in 2023.
It's not easy to decide to leave your home, but it's an important step many survivors of domestic violence take to stay safe and find support. Deciding to seek help is a big step. It can feel overwhelming. But you're not alone. At a women’s and children’s shelter, you can find support and assistance that can help you feel safe again and begin to build a better future.
The Benefits of Going to a Domestic Violence Shelter
Going to a women’s shelter provides significant support, though the services available may vary by location.
Safety: Shelters are a safe place to stay and get away from the danger of domestic violence. Shelters are secure, with policies, procedures and other measures in place to keep you and your kids safe.
Support: Shelters are staffed with domestic violence advocates who provide emotional support, advice and referrals to help you take the next steps towards safety. Most domestic violence advocates work with or know about programs and organizations that can help you with transitional housing, financial assistance and legal aid.
Resources: Many women and children’s shelters have resources like clothing, toiletries, food and other necessities that you and your kids might need. Even if you have to leave home in a hurry without packing, shelters are ready to help.
Use our Get Help tool to find a shelter or program near you. This can help you find trained professionals who care about you, your children and your future.
What to Expect From a Domestic Violence Shelter
If you’re thinking about going to a shelter, it can be helpful to know what to expect before you walk in the door.
You’ll be safe.
The top priority of domestic abuse shelters is your safety. Locations are often kept private and security is paramount. Shelter setup varies greatly. If you’re by yourself, you may share a room with another survivor. If you’re coming with children, you’ll share a room with them. Some shelters have age limits for mothers with sons over a certain age, for the safety of all survivors, but check with your shelter on their individual rules. Most shelters have common areas for kitchens, living rooms and bathrooms. But some shelters offer apartment-style living and others may place survivors with a host family.
Note that not all shelters have confidential locations. Learn more about shelter location confidentiality with “Should Shelter Locations Be Made Public?”
Your children will be safe.
Shelters understand that abusers have exposed children to domestic violence. Your children are welcome at women and children’s shelters and are allowed to stay with you. Childcare will likely be your responsibility but some programs provide childcare during counseling sessions or during the day or evening. Some shelters even provide structure to work out childcare arrangements with other residents.
Your pet(s) need protection, too.
Your pets are part of your family, and you likely don’t want to leave them behind. But don’t let that stop you from escaping abuse. Some domestic violence shelters allow pets onsite. These shelters may either let you keep certain pets in your living area with you or have a kennel/pet shelter facility. If a shelter can't have pets onsite, staff can likely offer you resources to make sure your pet is cared for. This might be an emergency pet shelter or fostering program. Service animals are allowed at shelters.
Your stay will be free.
You should not be billed for any services. Most shelters will give you a timeframe for how long you may stay and help you set goals to transition to another living situation. Stays range from three or four days at emergency shelters to one or more months at long-term facilities.
You’ll have basic necessities.
It’s okay if you need to leave home quickly, without many or any belongings. Most shelters will provide you and your children with food, clothing, toiletries, linens and other necessities during your stay. Shelter staff can also help you make arrangements to replace any medications, personal documents or other items you may have needed to leave behind.
Your stay will be confidential.
Shelters do not share your personal information with outside agencies unless you give explicit permission to do so. As a resident, you’ll probably be asked to keep the names and information of other residents confidential.
Transportation may be provided.
Many organizations offer free transportation to women and children’s shelters. Shelter staff can also help you get free access to transportation from the shelter to outside services and appointments. They may provide public transportation passes, vouchers for ride sharing or taxi services or even onsite transportation like vans.
You probably can’t have visitors.
Since safety and privacy are so important at domestic abuse shelters, most don’t allow visitors. You’ll be able to meet with family and friends in other secure locations.
What Happens When You Go to a Domestic Violence Shelter
There are some standard procedures at shelters, but note that policies and procedures vary from shelter to shelter.
You’ll start by completing an intake.
An intake may be a form, a conversation with a person or both. You’ll be asked for some personal information as well as what you need and want for yourself and your children. This is a good time to ask any questions you might have about your stay.
Shelters usually have rights and responsibilities for their residents that you’ll be expected to follow.
The shelter staff will explain the rules to you. They’re generally common sense, safety and cooperation responsibilities. Here’s an example from the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence:
Every resident has the right to keep their presence at this shelter confidential.
- If an abuser finds out the location of the shelter, it could compromise the safety of all residents. If your abuser comes to the building, you may need to find other living arrangements.
- We would like to keep the street address of the shelter as confidential as possible. For this reason, no mail will be delivered to the building, but will instead go to the agency’s address.
- Please inform the staff of any suspicious cars or people around the property that you notice. Please call 911 if you observe prowlers or otherwise feel in danger.
- Please be aware of our security system. [E.g., alarms, cameras, entry systems, etc.]
Other rules usually include policies for child care, pet housing, conflict resolution and personal and shared area cleanliness.
You’ll have regular contact with a domestic violence advocate.
During your stay at a women’s shelter, trained advocates will work closely with you and your children. They’ll often offer services like transitional housing or long term housing, financial assistance, therapy or counseling, and even job or skills training. Most shelters have advocates available in person on weekdays and by phone on weekends.
Donate and change a life
Your support gives hope and help to victims of domestic violence every day.
You’ll make plans for your future.
You might still need a safe place to stay when your time at the shelter ends. Advocates will help you find your next place to stay. It might be transitional housing until you’re able to move on your own; a different shelter if the one you’re at is an emergency or short term shelter; or long term housing with financial aid. Advocates will also help you plan on how to meet you and your children’s needs and goals for the future.
Women and Children’s Shelters and Staff Are There for You
Leaving your home is never easy, especially when you’re experiencing abuse. But rest assured that domestic violence shelters are designed with understanding of your situation. Trained staff understand the trauma, hurt, anger, fear and pain you may be experiencing as well as the everyday struggles like money, childcare and transportation. Shelters exist to help you and to do everything they can to accommodate your needs or help you find additional resources.
You can find a women and children’s shelter near you with our Get Help tool. Use it to see what services shelters near you provide and find other helpful domestic violence resources in your area. Many shelters also have 24/7 helplines available if you just need to talk.
Looking for someone to speak with? Enter your location to find phone numbers for domestic violence experts in your area.
Have a question about domestic violence? Type your question below to find answers.