Shelters have been greatly ignored by research as well as by the system itself. The low priority given shelters by the criminal justice system and by researchers is a result of (1) the small numbers of residents housed within these facilities, (2) the brevity of time during which domestic violence victims reside within the shelter, and (3) the complex collaboration shelters have with so many different agencies. As a result, these facilities tend to be invisible.
- Historical Development
- Philosophical Origins
- Financial Backing
- Services Offered
- Current Problems
A battered woman’s shelter is a temporary residence where victims of domestic violence (usually female victims) and their children who have no other recourse can escape violent living situations as well as work toward gaining other resources such as financial means, health care, child care, and social resources that can aid them in working toward a stable and independent violent-free life. Domestic violence, specifically violence against women, was not recognized as a social problem until the mid-1970s. As a result, women seeking help had few options available to them. It was this lack of resources that started the shelter movement. The battered women’s/shelter movement emerged from grassroots activists involved in the anti-rape movement, which focused on eliminating male violence against women. The movement was primarily feminist and focused on the notion that many of the problems women had been taught to define as private troubles were in fact widespread social problems. As the history of the battered women’s movement reveals, the shelter movement in Great Britain and the United States took similar turns at roughly the same time.
The first refuge for battered women in the movement against domestic violence was Chiswick Women’s Aid, which was established, quite by accident, in Britain in 1972. A consciousness-raising group had established a community center in which women could meet and discuss pertinent issues. A woman escaping domestic violence arrived and was immediately given shelter. As news of this available refuge spread, more women started to arrive requesting shelter. Within a year the facility, which was licensed to be used only for office space, had a daily residential population of twenty women and children. Due to the fact that no one was turned away, overcrowding soon became a problem. However, it was this very fact of overcrowding that revealed the dire need to establish a permanent shelter for battered women. It was not long after that the shelter was moved to a ten-room Victorian mansion. However, again, overcrowding became a problem and the idea of expansion quickly followed.
In the United States, Women’s House, which was established in 1974 in St. Paul, Minnesota, is documented as one of the first, if not the first, shelters for battered women. As in Britain, a consciousness-raising group called Women’s Advocates began it in 1972 with an eye toward social change. Through the implementation of telephone service in the county legal aid office, the group came to the realization that most calls for service were received from women experiencing domestic violence. In the attempt to help these victims and their children, volunteers opened their homes as temporary shelters. By 1973, Women’s Advocates had rented a one-bedroom apartment to be used as a shelter. After being evicted, Women’s House was established as a five-bedroom shelter in October 1974. Within a few months, Women’s House was filled to capacity. Again, expansion was imminent.
By the late 1970s it was argued that the lack of shelters to house battered women was the primary obstacle to escaping male violence. By 1977, women’s groups and organizations in England and Wales had established over 114 shelters, and in the United States over 130 shelters had been established. Funding usually came from rent, Social Security, and temporary government funding. Overcrowding was the norm and staffing comprised primarily volunteers. Shelters were usually found in the most dismal areas in houses needing extensive renovations. In England and Wales, the average stay was five and a half months, and in the United States the average stay was two weeks. A major difference between the shelters established in England and Wales and in the United States was that in the United States the shelters were available primarily to only the poorest women, while in England and Wales the shelters were open to all women needing shelter. By the late 1990s, over 1,200 shelters existed in the United States, housing over 300,000 women and children. In Great Britain, over 164 shelters had been established, housing over 20,000women and children.
Prior to the domestic violence/shelter movement, as well as the anti-rape movement, domestic violence was seen as a private trouble. It occurred within the privacy of a man’s home. He was in charge of all affairs and persons residing in his home and he had the right to chastise his wife and children. In the 1970s, feminists adopted the concern of violence against women. Domestic violence came to be understood as the domination of men over women in all spheres of a patriarchal society. In opposition to a past liberal philosophy, feminists argued that male violence against women can be explained by the gendered social structure characterized by power, domination, and hierarchy. As such, male violence against women must be defined as a social problem. Using this framework, women’s groups and shelters in Great Britain organized along self-help and nonhierarchical lines encouraging group support and empowerment. Within the United States, shelters took on a more structured and hierarchical form. The type of ideology adopted by the shelter staff determines how the shelter will be organized and how it will address the problem of violence against women in general and its residents in particular.
Shelters took on varying ideological foundations. In the United States one common ideological framework guiding the operation of shelters was the radical feminist focus on the politics of the mind and the body. According to this ideology, therapy can improve the female psychology and transform women to become independent, thus making them safer within their communities. Within Great Britain, radical feminist ideologies driving the operations of shelters focused on the social and material conditions of women. Another common ideological framework guiding other shelters’ operations was the liberal feminist focus on equal rights. Within the United States, liberal feminist activists focused on the Bill of Rights, fighting for a change in the law and its enforcement which would require that domestic violence be given the same serious legal consideration that other acts of violence were given. Great Britain favored a more socialist-feminist approach to the liberal feminist focus in that shelters and activists focused more on the role of the state in ensuring economic independence through state-provided housing, social, health, and welfare benefits and services. Today, regardless of the feminist politics guiding the operation of shelters, most shelters emphasize individual help as well as structural change. However, not all shelters have a feminist focus.
Shelters operating under a feminist ideology, such as the Bradley-Angle House in Portland, Oregon, have come to be known as activists’ shelters. However, other types of shelters, referred to as philanthropic shelters, organizational or bureaucratic shelters, and therapeutic shelters, have been established. Philanthropic shelters, such as the House of Ruth in Maryland, established in 1977, do not have a feminist focus. Instead, they focus on providing immediate material resources for the most needy and most deserving, with no focus on social change. Though not part of the original focus, philanthropic shelters today also place focus on counseling. Organizational or bureaucratic shelters give an emphasis to the coordination of community and governmental agencies in providing already existing services to battered women; one example is Community Effort for Abused Spouses (CEASE) in Alexandra, Virginia. These shelters have been criticized for placing too much focus on organizational efficiency and not enough on the residents of the shelter, and for not giving any attention to the widespread problem of domestic violence. Therapeutic shelters, such as Rainbow Retreat in Phoenix, Arizona, and Chiswick Women’s Aid in Britain, take on the medical model and focus on the emotional and psychological shortcomings of battered women. Through therapy, the professional staff of the shelter tries to aid the women in overcoming their personal problems. Again, this ideology has been criticized both for ignoring the larger social problem of domestic violence and for blaming the victim.
Since their beginning, domestic violence shelters have had to struggle to retain funding. For this reason, most shelter staff tend to be volunteers, with a small number of paid staff. Furthermore, many of the volunteers are themselves previous victims of domestic violence and previous shelter residents. Most early shelters operated through resident rent, which was usually obtained through state or federal benefits, such as Social Security or welfare. Because most government funding was temporary, most shelters also relied on private funding. More stable government funding within the United States was made possible through the Community Development Block Grants dispensed through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In 1978 HUD made it clear that shelters qualified for such grants. However, in 1982, through the reorganization of HUD, the Community Development Block Grants were given local control, thus funding allocation received less federal oversight and became more difficult to obtain. By the late 1970s, fifteen state legislatures were providing funds for shelters. Many states have increased the cost of marriage licenses and established tax credit programs in order to fund shelter operations. Additionally, fines collected from civil and criminal court cases may be used, in part, to fund shelters. However, state and federal funding is given to the operations of less than half of all shelters in the United States. By 1981 only 30 percent of the shelters in England received some government funding.
Federal funding of U.S. shelters today can be obtained primarily through the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ). HHS programs that help to fund domestic violence shelters in various ways include Title IV-A: Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF); Title IV-E: Foster Care and Adoption Assistance Programs; Title XIX: Medicaid Program (for shelters with medical or mental health staff); the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (which stresses collaboration between child welfare agencies and domestic violence providers); and Title XX: Social Services Block Grant. Within the DOJ, the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) provides grants to aid shelters through the Crime Victims Fund established by the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA). VOCA formula grants, in particular, provide significant funding to domestic violence shelters. Among tribal communities, the OVC provides a discretionary grant known as Victim Assistance in Indian Country (VAIC) to aid in funding domestic violence shelters. The Office on Violence against Women under the DOJ also provides grants to assist the operations of shelters; some of these grants are: the STOP Violence against Women Formula Grants program; the STOP Violence against Indian Women Discretionary Grants programs; Grants to Encourage Arrest Policies and Enforcement of Protection Orders; and Education and Technical Assistance Grants to End Violence against Women with Disabilities. Government grants tend to stress community collaboration and the organizational or bureaucratic model for shelters. As a result, there has been greater emphasis on individual counseling and less emphasis on social change.
Government funding is highly competitive and subject to renewal. Most shelter funding, however, is not obtained from local, state, and federal grant programs. Much of the funding is obtained from local community fundraisers, donations, private foundations, and corporations. Aside from monetary grants, shelters may receive public or private contributions of goods or services. This may include materials, transportation, office space, and professional services.
Shelters provide many services to their residents, the most important being shelter. As mentioned above, the average stay at a shelter in the United States is two weeks, while in Great Britain it is five and a half months. Short stays at shelters fall into the emergency shelter category. However, transitional living programs, which are extended stays, aid women and their children in moving from trauma to recovery. A major concern among shelter staff is residents’ use of shelters for respite or transition. Most shelters offer a variety of services that tend to be designed to empower victims, thus enabling them to break away from their abusers and live violent-free and independent lives. Most victims who turn to shelters for transitional purposes are determined to change their lives and become independent of their abusers. These victims may experience the maximum use of the services offered at shelters. However, some victims turn to shelters for respite, that is, to take a break from the physical and mental exhaustion placed on them by their abusers. In these cases victims may not intend to use the services provided by the shelter. Some have argued that perhaps the intentions of the victims should be determined in order to improve the delivery of such limited resources; in other words, save the resources for those victims who intend to actually leave their abusers. On the other hand, it should be noted that in many cases it takes a few unsuccessful attempts before an abused woman is able to successfully leave an abusive relationship. With this in mind, shelter services may serve as building blocks that work to empower the victim over time.
Services offered by many shelters include legal assistance, health care, child care, and social support. Legal services include court advocacy and support, educating the victim on the criminal justice process, and assisting with visitation and filling out forms, such as victim compensation and protection orders. Health services include medical care as well as mental health care, including individual, family, and group counseling. Child care may include day care and recreation, education, medical services, and counseling services. Social support includes a gamut of services ranging from emotional and group support to assisting with employment and welfare needs. Many services may be provided within the shelter, especially if the shelter employs medical and mental health professionals. However, many shelters work in collaboration with community social service agencies who may donate their services.
Current problems are twofold: (1) problems faced by shelters and (2) problems faced by shelter residents or victims requiring shelter. The primary problems confronting domestic violence shelters today are funding and staffing shortages, two problems which are intertwined. State and federal budget cuts have adversely affected shelter funding. Government budget cuts have directly hit the purses of domestic violence shelters, requiring them to look elsewhere for funding and to cut resources in the interim. Threats such as HUD’s reorganization or its data collection policy for shelters, as well as the recent threat of the elimination of the Violence against Women Act (VAWA) add undue financial strains on shelters.
While most shelters do not rely primarily on government funding, these cuts affect the daily operations of shelters, including employing or retaining qualified full-time staff. The lack of funds also requires that shelters turn away needy individuals. Other problems facing shelters include cultural insensitivity by and a lack of response from criminal justice professionals, inadequate bilingual interpreters within criminal justice and social services agencies, poor public transportation (in suburban and rural communities), and increased need for legal assistance for victims, counseling for children, better technology, and more shelter space.
While most shelter residents view their experiences in a positive light, many encounter numerous problems. For those victims who are able to obtain shelter, problems include inadequate space, as well as inadequate legal, medical, social, and counseling services, and stressful time constraints. Due to funding shortages, many women and their children are turned away from shelters. Furthermore, lesbians and women of color, holding perceptions that they will not be treated fairly, are less likely to turn to shelters for help. Lesbian domestic violence victims generally report less positive experiences than heterosexual women. Lesbian victims have the added worry that because their abusers are themselves women, safety within a women’s shelter may be harder to secure. So great were their worries and their needs that in 1985, Seattle founded the first support group for battered lesbians. Women of color fear that since shelters are operated predominantly by all-white staffs, they will experience cultural insensitivity from within the shelter itself. Furthermore, language barriers hinder many women from contacting a domestic violence shelter. In 1981, the first shelter for Asian women— Everywomens Shelter—was established in Los Angeles. Additionally, many shelters that are located in areas with large Hispanic populations, such as Casa de las Madres in Los Angeles, tend to stress multiculturalism and offer all services in English and Spanish.
Finally, male victims of domestic violence and their children tend to be turned away from most domestic violence shelters, most housing only women, and their children. There has been a recent media claim, though based on refutable research, that men make up 35 to 50 percent of all domestic violence victims. Additionally, the fact that VAWA grants do not apply to domestic violence shelters exclusively for male victims has been criticized. On the other hand, advocates and scholars alike argue that the focus should not be on the number of hits but on who has the power and control and who is living in fear. They argue that the historically institutional power structure between the genders has resulted in women as the most common victims of abuse and the ones left to seek shelter. This does not dispute the fact, however, that domestic violence shelters need to be established for male victims. In fact, the Montgomeryshire Family Crisis Centre provided a house that established the first exclusively male domestic violence shelter in south-west England.
Shelters have been greatly ignored by research as well as by the system itself. The low priority given shelters by the criminal justice system and by researchers is a result of (1) the small numbers of residents housed within these facilities, (2) the brevity of time during which domestic violence victims reside within the shelter, and (3) the complex collaboration shelters have with so many different agencies. As a result, these facilities tend to be invisible. They receive little attention and minimal funding. However, the large number of such facilities in operation today warrants further study.
The conditions and resources of shelters are far from ideal. Shelters experience financial hardships which affect their daily operations, from maintaining a trained staff to providing necessary services to victims to the upkeep of the physical conditions of their facilities. As a result, the victims seeking refuge suffer the consequences. These problems have been identified both within the United States and internationally. Furthermore, the lack of criminal justice sensitivity and responsiveness hide from public view the extent of domestic violence as a social problem and the need for shelters.
- Dobash, R. Emerson, and Russell Dobash. Women, Violence and Social Change. New York: Routledge, 1992.
- House of Ruth website. http://www.hruth.org/ (accessed August 24, 2013).
- Krishnan, Satya P., Judith C. Hilbert, Keith McNeil, and Isadore Newman. ‘‘From Respite to Transition: Women’s Use of Domestic Violence Shelters in Rural New Mexico.’’ Journal of Family Violence 19, no. 3 (2004): 165–173.
- SafeNETWORK. ‘‘Herstory of Domestic Violence: A Timeline of the Battered Women’s Movement,’’ 1999. http://www.icadvinc.org/what-is-domestic-violence/history-of-battered-womens-movement/.
- Schechter, Susan. Women and Male Violence: The Visions and Struggles of the Battered Women’s Movement. Boston: South End Press, 1982.
- Trujillo, Olga R., and Gretchen Test. ‘‘Funding the Work: Community Efforts to End Domestic Violence and Child Abuse,’’ 2005. http://www.thegreenbook.info/documents/fundingstreams.pdf.