Can Public Shelters Help Domestic Violence Victims?

I once visited a domestic violence shelter in New England. It was a small, nondescript Cape Cod-style house, jammed between other similar houses, just blocks from the ocean. Sand crunched under my shoes on a sidewalk so narrow I could have reached my hand through the window and touched someone on the couch. It had three bedrooms and a shared kitchen and bath, beige walls and furniture and a single kitchen table that required eating in shifts. Enough room for maybe three families, if they crammed themselves into shared bedrooms. The house was anonymous, its mission both urgent and secret. But it was also depressing — and pretty typical, as far as shelters go.

Historically, shelters maintained secret locations under the belief that secrecy equals safety — that anything less than being fully underground meant that survivors would be tracked down by their abusers and either physically harmed or dragged back into their relationships.

In practical terms, this meant residents lived in houses like the one in New England, sequestered from whatever supports they may have had in their own communities. If they were caring for extended-family members, if they held down a job, if their kids played on sports teams, if they frequented a book club or had pets or belonged to the P.T.A., they relinquished all of this. Cutting them off from the world was the only way, even though it meant leaving their grandmother’s china and probably all their family photos and anything that couldn’t fit in one or two suitcases. In exchange, traumatized families were given temporary housing with other traumatized families behind walls and gates, often with shared bathrooms, kitchens, living rooms. While there has been a movement in recent years to improve shelters — many allow pets now, for example, and have improved facilities — there remains, among many domestic violence organizations, a reluctance to let go of this idea of secrecy.

And yet the reality is that most shelter locations are, if not known outright, easy to find. Neighbors know. Utility workers often know. Postal carriers know. And in an age of increasingly accessible technological surveillance, abusers know, too. Or can find out. As a result, this guiding philosophy of secrecy as safety is drawing scrutiny from advocates, policymakers and survivors. Calls for what are termed open or public shelters appear to be on the rise. Montana, Colorado, Michigan, California, North Carolina and Washington, D.C., have all opened public or semipublic shelters (semipublic means a shelter isn’t advertised, but those who know of it aren’t explicitly enjoined to secrecy).

Several months ago, I had an opportunity to tour one of these new shelters. Peace House opened in the fall of 2019 in Park City, Utah, with an explicit mission to be as public as possible. It takes steps to advertise its location, even optimizing the language on its website to make it easy for search engines like Google to find. A large sign out front announces both organization and address in large blue letters. It sits on a frontage road just off I-80.

As Kendra Wyckoff, the executive director, showed me around, she told me a story of how she’d come to work one morning to find a woman waiting in her car in the parking lot; she was fleeing her abusive partner, driving across the country, and had found Peace House through an internet search. Ms. Wyckoff got her inside — a shower, a meal, a rest — and in the morning she was on her way with a handful of gas cards and a shelter address for the next night. This kind of accessibility to a virtual stranger is highly unusual. Ms. Wyckoff said she used to answer a domestic violence hotline on which callers would ask if they were going to be stuck in a warehouselike space, or if they’d have shared bathrooms. It occurred to her that the secrecy of shelters worked both ways: It kept the public from knowing about them, but it also kept victims from services.

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