Challenging the Shelter Model of Domestic Violence Services


Since the first shelter for domestic violence victims was opened in 1973 in St. Paul, Minnesota, countless women and children (and a few men) have benefitted from the chance to flee abusers to a safe location. It is important to recognize the four decades of assistance that has been provided by these shelters, yet at the same time, I wonder if perhaps time has come to move away from that model of service for domestic violence.

Below, I outline some of the reasons why the time may have come to change the way we go about helping victims of domestic violence. I offer these as suggestion given my work over the last eight years in the field, as well as my academic background on the issue. It is my hope that, at minimum, what I suggest here stimulates much needed dialogue about how to improve our work on this critical issue.

One way to see that this model is not working is that, on any given day, many victims are turned away because domestic violence shelters are at capacity. Each year, the National Network to End Domestic Violence conducts a 24-hour census of domestic violence programs in the U.S and territories. In 2013, 87 percent of identified programs participated. Results showed that victims made 9,641 requests for assistance that could not be provided. Most of these, around 60 percent, were related to housing. Where I live in South Florida, every shelter in the region has been at capacity for the last three weeks, despite multiple calls from victims seeking safety. While there is no clear data to show what happens to victims who are denied shelter, it is safe to assume that at least a portion of them stay with or return to abusers. Another portion likely ends up on the streets or in homeless shelters…not exactly safe locations when fleeing a dangerous assailant.

So, clearly the problem dwarfs the shelter capacity. But doesn’t that mean we should find and fund more shelters? I do not think so. Because another piece of the problem is that, as shelters have become increasingly bureaucratized, they have also become far more of a stop-gap measure, less able to respond to the unique needs of victims and to help them develop ways and means of living alone safely.

As funding for domestic violence services is scarce, and centers often compete for the same finite bundle of money, each must show that they are providing a specific set of services that funders have identified as “best practices.” While most of these are indeed good things (e.g., therapy, assistance in applying for state benefits), the need to document best practices inevitably results in services that cannot be provided because they were not included in the grant proposal or are supported by the funding agency.

Thus, a victim who needs legal assistance, for instance, which most do, is generally sent elsewhere. So, rather than a one-stop shop that can help a victim navigate the many systems with which she or he must interact, domestic violence shelters often simply make referrals, leaving the already traumatized person to fend for themselves.  All this while–I have personally witnessed–grant monies are being spent on non-essential items, like fancy office furniture, because the funding source allowed it.

Another issue is that this bureaucratization has led to a more professionalized work service. While in some ways that may be beneficial, as shelter staff may be more educated about the issue, it has also resulted in a more cold and clinical approach to a problem that requires a supportive and flexible response. Staff at many non-profit agencies are overwhelmed, often juggling fundraising, completing paperwork required for funders, and still trying to assist victims. Victims often complain that shelters feel like prisons and that they must beg for any personalized assistance. When they get it, many say they are treated as though they are a burden.

It is my contention that the current shelter model is failing to meet the needs of victims and is antithetical to the type of radical social change needed to end domestic violence. An alternate model, I suggest, would be more individualized, for instance, housing victims in hotels if needed during crises but then finding and helping pay for safe housing of the victim’s choice. During this time, advocates can work with victims to help them with all other required resources, from medical to legal, educational to economic.

I have worked with an organization that uses this model, and rather than feeling isolated and unwanted, victims feel safe, welcomed, and supported. I invite others to learn about the work of No More Tears (www.nmtproject.org) in South Florida to see if perhaps this model can be implemented elsewhere as an alternative to the traditional shelter.

Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology.

Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.

November 30, 2015
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