Shelters and Safehouses
last updated February 1, 2006

Over the course of the last two decades, battered women's shelters in the United States and Great Britain have encountered many of the same challenges currently faced by shelters in CEE/FSU. Although the way in which shelters developed varies from country to country, a description of the experiences of shelters in the United States and the strategies used by these shelters to address administrative, institutional and advocacy challenges can be used to inform current discussions of shelters in CEE/FSU.

The United Nations views the provision of shelter and other services as a critical part of States' obligation to protect victims of violence. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, for example, calls on governments to "[p]rovide well-funded shelters and relief support for girls and women subjected to violence, as well as medical, psychological and other counselling services and free or low-cost legal aid, where it is needed, as well as appropriate assistance to enable them to find a means of subsistence." Where governments have failed to ensure the availability of adequate services for victims of domestic violence, however, such services are often provided by NGOs.

Please see the 2008 United Nations expert group report entitled "Good practices in legislation on violence against women", Section 6.D on housing rights of survivors of violence against women.  For the Russian version of the recommendations to the report, click here.

The Shelter and Safehouse Movements

The shelter and safehouse movement in the United States began in the early 1970s. Two of the earliest shelters were Women's Advocates in Minnesota and Transition House in Boston. Women who were concerned about domestic violence or were themselves victims of domestic violence came together and decided that one of the most critical issues facing victims was the absence of alternative housing. Many of these early groups began by housing women in advocates' own homes for one or two days. Safehouse networks continue to this day, and are a viable alternative to temporary housing when establishing a shelter is not feasible.

Shelters in the United States and in Great Britain have historically operated under one or more founding philosophies: philanthropic, bureaucratic, therapeutic and activist. Shelters having a philanthropic approach often grew out of movements to address poverty and homelessness, and are focused on providing individuals with the basic necessities of food, shelter and clothing. Shelters with a more bureaucratic approach mirror civil service organizations and are focused on coordinating the various agencies that deliver services to battered women. Shelters with a therapeutic approach are more closely tied to a mental health model and focus on providing battered women with therapy and counseling. Shelters with an activist approach take a broader view of the problem of domestic violence and are concerned not only with the physical and emotional needs of individual battered women but also with the societal structures that allow the continuation of wife abuse. From R. Emerson Dobash & Russel P. Dobash, Women, Violence and Social Change 76-77 (1992).

Shelters in the United States have taken different approaches to solve some of the challenges they face in their day-to-day operations.


Locating funding for a shelter is a priority at the shelter's founding and throughout its life. Women's Advocates, for example, began fundraising in 1973 with a letter campaign; the women in the group mailed letters to friends and acquaintances, outlining the plans for the shelter and asking for donations or monthly pledges. The response to this mailing of approximately four hundred letters generated almost $700 a month. Women's Advocates then began to submit funding proposals and grant applications to local and state governments and private foundations; the shelter received a grant the following year for staff salaries and grants from foundations in subsequent years.

Women's Advocates also asks residents for small contributions to their room and board. Because even a few dollars a day can present a real hardship to some women, the shelter also makes it clear that women will not be turned away if they cannot pay. In general, the shelter has found that women do what they can to meet the cost of staying at the shelter. Women's Advocates also sought contributions from local welfare agencies, but negotiated with the local government to ensure that women were not later penalized for these payments from the government to the shelter.

Length of Stay

Some shelters have limits on how long a woman can stay, some do not. The longer a woman is allowed to stay, the more time she has to gather the resources that she will need to protect herself. At the same time, however, the longer the women stay, the fewer women who can be housed in times of crisis.

Shelters that do not limit the length of a stay note that most women will return home or find alternate accommodation when the crisis has passed; in CEE/FSU, however, the ability of women to find alternate accommodations may be limited by the shortage of available housing. Other shelters limit the length of a resident's stay, or reach individual length-of-stay agreements with residents based on the resident's needs and how quickly she anticipates being able to find other housing.

Some shelters are able to combine temporary shelter with transitional housing options; women stay in the temporary shelter at first, but move, after a time, to longer-term transitional housing where they may stay for a year or two until they find permanent alternate housing.

Finally, a shortage of housing may simply make it too difficult to provide temporary shelter to women in crisis. Many advocacy groups in the CEE/FSU region operate crisis centers and hotlines as alternative ways to provide assistance to women in crisis.

Shelter Policies

Developing policies that both ensure the residents' autonomy and also foster order within the shelter can be difficult. Where necessary for the shelter's existence and residents' well-being and safety, rules are entirely appropriate.

At the same time, however, rules should not be so restrictive as to endanger women or undermine their ability to protect themselves. The residents have likely just left relationships in which they did not have control or autonomy; it is critical that the shelter does not replicate that dynamic by trying to control all aspects of the residents' conduct or denying them the ability to make choices about their lives. One shelter visited by The Advocates for Human Rights while researching domestic violence in Poland, for example, controls residents' mail, prevents them from taking outside jobs, requires them to work for the shelter, forces them to deposit money with the shelter administration, and prohibits them from leaving without permission. From MAHR, A Report on Domestic Violence in Poland 44 (2002). Rules that severely restrict resident autonomy do not empower women to evaluate their options and make the decisions they need to make about their lives.

Residents of a shelter often contribute to the shelter's maintenance. Some shelters develop rules that require certain levels of participation while others seek women's participation on their own terms. Women's Advocates addresses resident participation by developing a task list and then asking each woman to choose a task that she prefers to do; she is not assigned a responsibility by someone else.

Linda A. Osmundson, Executive Director of Florida's Center Against Spouse Abuse, provides a thoughtful discussion of these issues in her article, Shelter Rules: Who Needs Them? Based on her experience in running a shelter, she cautions against overly-stringent rules. She maintains that before instituting new rules, shelter staff should ask: "Is this rule respectful?" and "Does this rule increase safety?" The rule should be instituted only if the answer to both questions is "yes."

Address Policies

Some shelters work to ensure resident security by keeping the shelter's location a secret; residents and staff are instructed not to reveal the address of the shelter. Many women are stalked and killed by their former partners after they leave. Being able to keep their location a secret not only protects women from these batterers but can also enhance their feeling of being safe.

Efforts to maintain an unknown address can be difficult, however, and are often frustrated by outside parties. Some government agencies where women go to seek financial or other assistance may not keep the address a secret. Some schools, after receiving the address where the woman and her children are staying, have policies of calling the woman's husband to inform him of his wife and children's location. Attempting to keep the shelter location a secret can also be difficult for children, who may not understand why they cannot say where they are living. The logistics of a secret address are also difficult for the residents; they may have to walk a number of blocks before they may call a cab or access public transportation in order to avoid revealing the location of the shelter.

Other shelters have adopted an open address strategy. Women's Advocates, for example, switched from a secret to an open address. They believed that maintaining an unknown address increased residents' feelings of insecurity and powerlessness. Another shelter in Minnesota adopted an open address policy because they had found that keeping the location a secret reinforced residents' feelings of shame and humiliation in connection with the violence. The positive relationship Women's Advocates has developed with its neighbors also helps to further resident safety; the shelter's neighbors are aware of the residents' security concerns and often inform the shelter if they notice suspicious activity.

In open address shelters, while residents do not generally reveal their location to their husbands, the shelter's address is listed in the local phone directory and on shelter brochures. Some shelters that have the advantage of being a part of a network of shelters can move a resident from one shelter to another if her batterer discovers her location. In these networks, while the locations of the individuals shelters are known, the locations of the victims are not. Other shelters that do not have the advantage of working in a network will move a woman to safe locations (i.e., safehouses), such as an advocate's apartment, if she is located by her abuser.

In some contexts, cultural consideration may counsel for the adoption of a safehouse approach or an open address policy. In documenting domestic violence in Uzbekistan, for example, The Advocates for Human Rights found that there was no precedent for married women to spend a night away from home in a strange place, especially one with an unlisted address. That kind of an "arrangement could create suspicion and lead to a woman being thrown out of her home." From MAHR, Domestic Violence in Uzbekistan 56 (2000).

The actual location of the shelter, however, is critical. A location near public transportation lines allows women to visit the necessary agencies or law enforcement offices. Not all shelters should be located in large cities; rural women often suffer from severe isolation, may not be aware of the existence of shelters in the city, or may not be able to reach them.

Security and Confidentiality

Shelter security is a vital issue for the residents; women may be in serious danger of being found and harmed by their partners. Security concerns can be addressed in a number of ways. First, shelters should take precautions to protect residents' safety and confidentiality such as not disclosing information about residents to anyone and restricting access to resident files. (Residents should be able to access their own files, however.)

Where funding is available, shelters have installed electronic security systems. Women's Advocates, for example, has a security system that can be activated from any floor of the house. Yet security systems are only as useful as the police that respond to alarms, and like domestic violence victims, shelters may not receive adequate protection from police. Women's Advocates, for example, found that the police arrived thirty to forty minutes after they were called because their calls were classified as "domestic disturbances." The women met repeatedly with the local police department in order to obtain a more immediate response to its calls for assistance. Although these meetings were unsuccessful, the shelter eventually obtained better responses from the police department by lobbying the mayor's office.

Finally, to increase resident safety, Women's Advocates also worked with a city attorney to create an agreement between the city and the shelter that stated that the shelter had the right to deny fathers access to the property even though their children were staying at the shelter.


Shelters in the United States focused on supporting and assisting battered women and did not initially pay much attention to the needs of the children who arrived with these women. Gradually, however, they learned more about the effects of domestic violence on children, and began developing special advocacy and support programs designed for children.

Internal Structure

Different shelters organize themselves in different ways; the organization of a shelter should be driven by the shelter's specific needs. For example, Women's Advocates operates as a collective; there is no hierarchical division of labor, and all staff members participate in decisions equally. In its first few years of operation, all staff participated in all tasks equally; now, the shelter's work is organized by task forces for business and administration, children's programs, and women's programs. Women's Advocates notes that while the task force structure has increased internal efficiency, it has reduced the flow of information within the organization. In addition, the new structure does not allow (or require!) staff to develop new skills as readily as was possible when all staff participated in all tasks.

Other shelters have a board of directors that makes the long-term, directional decisions for the shelter, while day-to-day decisions are made by staff (either in a collective or hierarchical structure). Often, this board is structured to reflect the ethnic composition of the community served by the shelter, to ensure that decisions are attentive to the needs of the clients. Other shelters have combined a board composed of residents and staff that makes long-term decisions with another board that provides guidance but has no decision-making authority.


Some shelters require staff to have professional training, some do not. Most, however, provide on-the-job training for both staff and volunteers. Staff and volunteers generally receive training when they start working at the shelter; most shelters also provide "in-service" training at monthly, quarterly or bi-yearly intervals. Shelters also provide staff and volunteers with opportunities to exchange information and experiences; these opportunities should happen more often than training, and can, for example, be part of a weekly or bi-weekly staff meeting. Training is also vital in ensuring continuity of information; while this may not be as crucial if there is low turnover, such efforts are absolutely necessary when new staff is beginning to make sure institutional knowledge is not lost. Ensuring that staff have opportunities to exchange experiences with one another also helps to guard against staff burnout.

Record Keeping

Adequate record-keeping can serve a number of functions for shelters and safehouses (as well as for hotlines). First, an initial description of a new resident's situation can be made available to staff members, so that staff members who may not have been present when the woman arrived do not need to ask the resident again about her situation. Second, this information helps advocates remain up-to-date on the needs of battered women in the community. Third, these records can be an important advocacy tool. Documenting the number of women who use the service, for example, can help establish a need for the service that can be used in funding applications. Statistics can also be useful in conducting community education efforts; they can help to further the public's awareness of the prevalence and seriousness of the problem.

Additional Services

Different shelters offer different services; some offer solely temporary housing, while others also provide health care services, legal advice, job training and counseling. Most offer women assistance in obtaining social and medical services.

Adapted from Women's Advocates, The Story of a Shelter (1980); National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Guidelines for Starting a Shelter.