Making Change Fall 2008, Volume 9, Number 1

Crisis forces shelters to be even more responsive to victims

by Susan Bonne

After Katrina



efore Hurrican Katrina hit, Crescent House, a shelter for domestic violence victims in New Orleans, operated much like hundreds of others across the country. Then the world turned upside down for both staff and those who depended on them.

Crescent House lost contact with many of its clients. Their government contracts were in jeopardy because they had to convince policy makers that there was still a priority need for the services in the hurricane's aftermath. Staff members literally had to search for their clients throughout the city and beyond.

Strangely, what happened at Crescent House could be considered a true “blessing in disguise." Having to do more with less forced Crescent House staff to listen more closely to what was most important to their traumatized clients, so they could serve their most essential needs.

Listening healed and improved services

Executive Director Mary Claire Landry was forced to rethink how to respond to the women in her community and keep them safe. Because they no longer had the facilities to house women onsite, the shelter began to offer other options, including hotel rooms, safe houses, and apartments, and for survivors who couldn’t leave their homes, Landry and her staff provided something even more basic: a willingness to just listen.

“The community was devastated; housing needs were overwhelming,” recalls Landry. “We couldn’t provide nearly enough. What we could do was listen to survivors at that moment, and find out what they needed.”

What they needed, it turned out, was connection; under the circumstances, they didn’t expect a bed—but they did need to know that someone was there to hear, and care, about their stories. As Landry and her staff listened, they began to learn that the traditional shelter model they had offered maybe wasn’t what many women in their community really wanted, and that in fact, had been keeping a lot of women away, for a lot of different reasons.

Three years later, Crescent House operates very differently than it did before Katrina, in part due to scarce resources, but increasingly because they feel that the new way of operating that has evolved serves their community better than before. Now, they're proud that it more accurately reflects a broader voice.

The storm’s mother of invention

Today, for example, Crescent House has loosened its rules and regulations, welcoming women off the street 10 hours a day, without requiring lengthy registration procedures or limiting entry to standard business hours. Women can come with their kids, their mother, their sister, and whomever they come with can accompany them to the hotel or safe house. Women can drop in for a conversation or to feed their children lunch, or to relax, sleep, and just simply be in a place where they are out of harm's way.

Making Crescent House a warm and welcoming dropin center removed barriers to entry that Landry and her staff hadn’t known existed before Katrina. Other changes also stayed. Today, instead of providing traditional shelter beds, Crescent House gives vouchers for nights in hotels, or guides women to safe houses. If shelter is needed for more than a few nights, survivors are placed in apartments for up to two months.

It turned out that a lot of potential shelter users didn’t want to make a move to a communal setting. “It’s just too hard,” notes Landry. “They’re in crisis; they don’t want to have to deal with other people’s issues. They’ve been controlled; now they’re going into another situation where they have limited control over their living situation. And staff was spending more time on sorting out disputes than they were on counseling, or helping clients in other ways.”

The new model also takes into consideration the fact that many survivors don’t want to leave their homes, but needed to be able to come and talk about what was happening, and learn about their options. It also better serves gay/lesbian and disabled populations, who tend to avoid traditional shelters, and enables providers to be more culturally sensitive, placing Asian or Hispanic victims in safe houses or apartments in their own neighborhoods.

The staff at Crescent House really feels like they’re helping the women they see. Before, they spent more time on paperwork and on resolving community living issues and mediating tensions. Now, when a victim comes in, they’re able to spend more time finding out what she really needs and then helping her get it, whether that’s counseling, legal advice, support, children’s groups, safety planning or access to other information.

Along with the changes in philosophy are changes in language to remove old labels and stigmas. Support groups are now family nights, and Landry says kids never hear the words ‘domestic violence’ or ‘shelter’—“some clients don’t identify themselves that way, and for kids who still go home at night, there’s less chance that they’ll inadvertently let a batterer know where they’ve been,” says Landry.

While many domestic violence programs feel strongly about the traditional shelter model, new ideas and approaches are gaining support. Landry says that when she talks to shelter directors, many express an interest in exploring new ways of responding to community realities and needs. They point to struggles to maintain funding and staff, and like Landry, are listening to survivor points of view as well.

Supporting survivors who stay connected to their partners

A new paper recently released by the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence (NRCDV) also examines how domestic violence advocates can be more responsive to survivors who seek help of a different sort. “When Battered Women Stay…Advocacy Beyond Leaving,” written by long-time advocate and author Jill Davies, provides a framework for identifying some next steps toward expanding advocacy.

“Historically, our primary means of addressing abuse has been to help victims leave relationships,” says Anne Menard, director of the NRCDV. “And while this remains very, very important, we find ourselves needing to define more clearly a new advocacy for victims who are choosing to stay connected to an abusive partner.

Advocacy that is also more responsive to survivors who, while wanting the violence to end, have good reasons for not wanting to leave their relationships, their homes, their communities.”

In New Orleans, after Katrina, it was very difficult for survivors to leave their homes, primarily because there simply was no place else to go, but also because after having been through so much, many victims didn’t want to put themselves or their children through another traumatic event.

But there are other reasons why victims are choosing to stay in their homes, and there is growing consensus among shelter workers that supporting these victims is also an important aspect of their work. Some victims want to try to help their abusive partners get treatment and change. Others want their kids to be able to maintain a relationship with their fathers, if that can be done safely. Many have economic concerns about leaving, fearing that they won’t be able to provide for or care for their children. Still others are concerned about their partners, given the disproportionate number of African American men in jail, believing they will not receive fair treatment in the legal justice system.

That doesn’t mean safety and empowerment take a back seat to other concerns. Says Menard, “Safety is always primary. But we have an opportunity to provide more support to survivors as they explore whether staying makes sense—in the short and long term—and when it is not a good idea. The reality is, even after a survivor has left an abusive partner, often there is still a lot of contact between them, especially if there are children involved. How do we help survivors manage these ongoing contacts and connections? While answers are far from clear, it's clear that we must ask the questions.”

Menard argues that the best advocacy is to recognize how varied and complex survivors’ circumstances and resources are, and to approach women as not just victims but also as mothers, employees, members of extended families, church members, consumers, and often very connected to their communities.

Doing more with less

In an era of ever-shrinking resources, doing more with less presents an ongoing challenge, and meeting a broader set of needs is not an either-or proposition; emergency shelter remains a crucial resource for survivors, and many survivors are looking for other kinds of support. How do shelters rethink and retool their advocacy approaches so that they are as responsive as possible to survivors with different needs? How do shelters better help women with economic issues—housing, jobs, education, childcare—and still provide core services such as legal advocacy, support groups, transportation and emergency shelter? Communities also differ in their needs, and what is pressing in one city or county may be of less concern in a neighboring area.

Where will the money come from? Says Menard, “Clearly, a huge challenge here is how to do more with less and balance what appear to be competing needs. We have to be persistent and creative. And we have to find new partners. Survivors are counting on us to be and do nothing less.”

A copy of “When Battered Women Stay…Advocacy Beyond Leaving” can be requested by calling NRCDV at 800-537-2238.


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