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We Keep Domestic Violence Shelters Secret. Who Is That Really Helping?

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.

Today’s very public Peace House is the brainchild of Jane Baker Patten, the former executive director. Before this new building, Peace House was a tiny red house with five bedrooms, three bathrooms and a maximum capacity of 15 people.

As demand outgrew the building, Ms. Baker Patten realized it was an opportunity to rebuild not only physically, but also philosophically. She asked herself: What barriers existed to escaping abuse? What would safety look like in a place where you could entertain family and friends? A place you could disclose the address of on a job application? She spoke to community leaders, school officials, police, attorneys. She looked at models like the Ronald McDonald House and the YWCA. At the same time, in one conversation after another, Ms. Baker Patten realized that the tiny red house, far from being undisclosed, was known to just about anyone she asked. What was all the secrecy really doing beyond cutting victims off from anyone and anything they’d known?

It turns out she was on to something. In a 2020 report on open shelters, researchers concluded that “there is no longer a clear connection between a secret and inaccessible shelter location and the safety of survivor-residents.” In fact, the report noted, public shelters meant neighbors could help facilitate safety, advocates could partner with outside agencies to offer more programming, and informal support networks for things like child care and social engagements could continue. Far from putting survivors in danger, the report concluded, open shelters were in some ways more deliberate than secret ones about taking precautions around physical safety; at the same, the researchers wrote, “they were able to provide survivors with an invaluable benefit: greater social connectedness.”

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This reflects Peace House’s experience. In addition to administration and housing for up to 60 residents, it has classrooms, meditation rooms, counseling offices, a food pantry, a dog run, a playground, a roof deck, shared common areas, a child-care center and safe rooms in case someone unwanted does gain access. There are also programs on topics like healthy relationships, violence prevention and teenage dating violence that are intended to serve the community at large. Ms. Wyckoff said most people who attend come not from their campus but from outside, in Park City and beyond.

Safety is still paramount, of course: Peace House has five levels of security. Its architects, Kenton Peters and John Newell, told me they’d had to figure out how to move people through the building going from, say, security level four to security level zero — essentially a public area — while still maintaining safety. The administrative offices face the public; the housing looks toward the mountains but is hidden from the exterior grounds. The building buzzes directly into the police station, if needed, and officers know the layout of the facility. There is bullet-resistant glass, but also a welcoming reception area and art donated by local artists and galleries. The one thing Peace House does not have is secrecy. “If you’re going to allow it to be in the dark, then you’re going to get more dark,” Ms. Baker Patten said.

I’ve often wondered if there is any crime less discussed in the public square than domestic violence. Words like “private,” “intimate” and “domestic” — used alongside “violence” — imply that this crime is somehow different from other crimes; this crime must be concealed. There is no better symbol of this secrecy than the traditional domestic violence shelter.

Keeping shelters unknown makes them unknowable. It makes shame a central tenet in a victim’s life. As I walked around Peace House, I saw something else at work. I saw a community hub sending an entirely new message to domestic violence victims, one that said they were not alone. One that said the solution to domestic violence is a community responsibility. “When you’re public you’re not a mystery to your community,” Ms. Wyckoff told me. “It says this entire community is here for you.” It also says we all have a stake in the extraordinarily difficult task of rebuilding the lives of some of our most vulnerable citizens.

By Rachel Louise Snyder

Ms. Snyder is a contributing Opinion writer and the author of “No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us.”


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