Bozeman, Mont. — Sarah Young packed a bag of essentials, gathered her children and fled her home to a shelter: an old, green house that blends into the neighborhood of this southwestern Montana town.
Nothing about the home marked it as a domestic violence shelter – it was hidden in plain sight. Yang was not allowed to address anyone. Privacy made him feel safe. But her roommate, a young mother, struggled to care for her baby without her family to help. Some residents couldn’t work because they didn’t have cars. Several domestic workers tried to sneak out at night for a break from curfews, locked windows and alarm systems.
“We were there because we needed to be kept safe,” Young said. “For me, it was comfortable. For them, it felt like being in jail.”
Louise Johns for KFF Health News
The long-held standard for domestic violence shelters is to shelter residents at undisclosed addresses. This model stems from the belief that privacy keeps survivors safe from their abusers. But directors of domestic violence shelters say keeping their locations secret has become more complicated and the practice can alienate residents.
Now some shelters are moving to open spaces. This spring, the Bozeman nonprofit Haven completed construction on a campus minutes from the main road leading into downtown that replaced the Green House. Sun-drenched letters display the nonprofit’s name on the side of the nonprofit’s new building
There is a community garden, yoga classes, and space for residents to host friends. It’s within walking distance of grocery stores and an elementary school, and it borders a city park that’s a place for people to take their dogs or go fishing.
Haven’s executive director Erika Coyle said the nonprofit’s old shelter in the city of more than 54,000 people has been secretive for years. “Our job is not to rescue a survivor and hide them,” Coyle said. “What we need to do collectively, as a community and as a movement, is to listen to survivors and when they say, ‘The isolation of being in shelters is a big barrier for me.’
Katherine Houghton/KFF Health News
Similar changes are spreading across the country. In recent years, agencies in Utah and Colorado have created public-facing shelters that connect clients with on-site resources such as legal services. A victim support organization in New York City has spent years laying the groundwork to build shelters that allow residents to invite friends and family.
Rural states like Montana appear to be shifting to open shelters more than urban areas. Kelsen Young, executive director of the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said it’s likely because it’s harder to keep a secret in towns where everyone knows everyone. Shelters in Missoula and Helena made the switch a few years ago, and he said the plan is working elsewhere.
Gina Boesdorfer, executive director of the Helena Friendship Center, said hidden sites force survivors into hiding instead of supporting people in their communities and regular routines.
“It really highlights the lack of other supports and resources in a community,” Boesdorfer said. “It still puts the burden on the victim rather than on the offender.”
No one is tracking how many shelters have shifted to the open model. Lisa Goodman, a psychologist and Boston College professor who researches how to improve systems for survivors of violence, said the definition of “open” shelters varies.
Some open shelters stop trying to hide their addresses, allowing residents to go to work while the buildings remain off limits. Others allow residents to have visitors in their quarters or offer community spaces for gatherings.
“As the domestic violence movement has been, it’s bubbling up from below,” Goodman said.
The first shelters were created when women took other women into their homes. Beginning in the 1970s, shelters were built on the premise that privacy is the safest. But as shelters grow to serve more people, hiding becomes less practical as more survivors work and children attend school. Not to mention the challenges of technological advancements like phone GPS tracking.
Goodman said there is no national guide for shelters considering an open model. Everyone needs to weigh big questions, such as: How will shelters screen visitors to make sure they’re not a threat? How will they protect a survivor whose abuser is still loose and dangerous? And how do they balance the freedom of residents with privacy for those who want it?
Moving out into the open after decades of insisting on privacy isn’t always an easy sell.
In 2021, a once-hidden haven in Vail Valley, Colorado, a cluster of rural towns nestled within a world-class ski resort, opened a new facility. The property offers services such as behavioral health, housing, and legal assistance for residents and non-residents, as well as small apartments.
Sherry Mintz, CEO of the shelter’s owner, Bright Future Foundation, said buy-in took time. Some advocates against domestic violence are concerned that the move will jeopardize the safety of survivors.
In response, the agency has upgraded the shelter’s security measures beyond its previous location. Police officers visited the facility to check security and develop response plans for security breaches.
“So far, we haven’t had any serious incidents,” Mintz said. “We’ve always had a situation where clients could be victims of stalking. I don’t see that increasing or changing since we’ve been in this public-facing shelter.”
In New York City, Olga Rodriguez-Vidal, vice president of the domestic violence shelter for Safe Horizons, said the victim support organization is still working on fundraising with an open model.
There, leadership hopes to create a mix of confidential emergency housing for people coming out of a crisis, while letting tenants in more transitional housing decide if they want visitors.
“It’s very new and innovative and maybe a little scary,” Rodriguez-Vidal said.
In Bozeman, Haven’s new campus consists of two buildings. The first is a resource hub with staff offices, services for clients and space for community events. Cameras connected to a security system can flag registered license plates of known abusers, and every visitor is screened before being buzzed.
The new site allows for much more advanced security measures than what the nonprofit might use when trying to blend in with the neighborhood, Coyle said.
Inside, the building is designed to feel like a safe space for people experiencing trauma. Every window has a view of what will be the property’s gardens. On one side of the building are therapy rooms for adults. One of these rooms has a view of the children’s playroom so parents can get help knowing their children are safe.
Havens housing, a short walk from the main hub, is still off limits to anyone but staff members and residents to keep the space private. Survivors choose when and if they want to communicate through events hosted next door. Driveway to resident accommodation is gated and private.
Sara Young was among the survivors who weighed in on the design of Haven’s new shelter, and overall, she’s excited about the changes. He is happy that his shelter will have more space for residents and easier access to services.
But Young is a bit unsure about the idea of a public-facing shelter. He felt safe knowing the address wasn’t public for his ex to see. He liked that the shelter’s neighbors didn’t necessarily know why he was there; He doesn’t want to feel judged for being in an unsafe relationship. But a public address didn’t stop Young from showing up.
“I was desperate, I’m sure I would have left,” Young said, adding that he wouldn’t have the stability he feels today without that help. “But I didn’t want anyone to know.”
Then again, Young said, maybe getting shelter out in the open would help reduce the judgment she feared and help more people understand that someone can find themselves trapped in an unsafe relationship and what to do if it happens.
He plans to see how it plays out.
KFF Health News, formerly known as Kaiser Health News (KHN), is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues and is one of KFF’s core operating programs — an independent source of health policy research, polling and journalism. .