Question About Starting A Battered Women's Shelter

An “Alas” reader has a question for the “Alas” readership.

Our church has a rectory that is now and is expected to remain unused by a cleric. It is a single family home with 3 bedrooms, a small dining room and kitchen, one and a half baths and a finished basement. It has been proposed by one of our parishioners that we could put it to use as a battered women’s shelter. Can anyone give some guidance on the characteristics that would make it either suitable or unsuitable for such use (construction, location, whatever)? Can anyone give some guidance on what kind of organization (either government or not-for-profit) we should contact to look into the matter further?

If anyone has any advice to offer this reader, please leave it in the comments. Thanks!

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12 Responses to Question About Starting A Battered Women's Shelter

  1. 1
    Kevin T. Keith says:

    I’m no expert on this in any way. A few thoughts off the top of my head, though:

    (1) It sounds too small, especially for women with children. It probably wouldn’t hold more than one or at most two families.

    (2) It’s in kind of an obvious location (I assume it’s on the church grounds or right next door?). If it’s known that the church is running a shelter, but doesn’t have a resident priest, and the lights are on in the rectory, it’s not going to take long for abusers to figure out where to go.

    (3) Running a shelter is a lot of work. You can’t just give them the keys and say “remember to lock up!” Typically, such programs have an on-site house manager around the clock, and a staff of counselors, legal aid, social workers or job-placement and housing advisors, etc. Battered women need more than just shelter – when they come to the shelter, their entire lives have been disrupted in every aspect and they may have to abandon whatever they had before; it may not even be possible for them to seek shelter unless they know they can also get transportation to/from work, keep their kids in school, find or maintain a source of income and food, have health insurance for themselves and kids, etc.

    It sounds like what the church really has to offer is just housing alone, not comprehensive services. (That’s a great thing in itself – I don’t mean to downplay it.) But that means it might be a better idea to use the house to sponsor just one family, maybe a homeless family or refugees – someone for whom housing is their major problem, or at least a problem that can be solved in isolation from whatever else is going on.

  2. 2
    Barbara says:

    Aside from the issue of neighborhood acceptance and zoning, there are in my mind only two real issues, the safety of the house and the safety of the residents. If a house cannot be made secure (too many entrances, for instance) then it’s probably not suitable. However, many shelters have given up on keeping the location of shelters a mystery because it’s tough to do (the residents are the most likely ones to broadcast the information for their own convenience), and also because being in visible locations (i.e., on bus routes and having more access to shopping) is often really important to residents. However, even if the location of the house is known, it’s not a good idea for people in the house to be highly visible to a steady stream of people. Who is in the house at a given time is still usually closely guarded information, and if a lot of people have the opportunity to observe the residents coming and going, it’s more likely to get back to an abuser that someone is there at a given time.

    Also, it’s true that battered women need more than shelter, but not all the services they need need to be in the house — if the church has an office, for instance, that is available to support services, that’s probably okay. Again, the need for privacy of the residents is important, however. You also need to consider the safety of the children, for instance, in any playground area. A manager doesn’t need to reside in the house — In the houses I volunteered for, a manager had an office and was present during the day, and volunteers managed the house at night. Also, residents were assigned responsibilities.

    Personally, I would call a local shelter and get a consult!

  3. 3
    Elisabet says:

    Zoning is probably not going to be an issue for a shelter because federal law protects certain uses, including e.g. shelters, group homes for the disabled, and even halfway houses, up to a certain size. Those facilities can go into any neighborhood, but other factors (financial resources, access to services and transportation, etc.) may effectively prevent them from locating in many areas. As Barbara suggested, assessing local needs and coordinating with other organizations would be the best way to go.

    One use that many old rambling rectories have been put to is providing housing for volunteers; I know the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) and the Lutheran Volunteer Corps have done that. The vounteers live together in intentional communities, and work with a variety of community organizations. A different model is the Catholic Worker House system, movement, whatever, which houses resident volunteers in the house along with those being given shelter.

    I have a friend who spent a year as a volunteer living in one such house; the local church simply provided the house – an unused rectory – and the national organization took care of the pretty much everything else (recruiting, training, and matching volunteers with organizations, for instance). Not that there wasn’t a lot of interaction between the volunteers and the congregation, but it wasn’t like having to start a program from scratch at the local level. Just a thought.

  4. 4
    Annie says:

    While I agree with the above commenters that the house in question probably isn’t suitable for a shelter, it might be of use to shelters and other organizations. E.g., I volunteered at a shelter and volunteer training was held in a rectory- or hall-type building of a church in the same town. Interviews for prospective volunteers were also held at this location. So perhaps the building could be used by a number of organizations; the church might even be able to charge modest fees to cover expenses of making the building available to groups that need a place to meet.

  5. 5
    Rob says:

    I read a short article in the Week that abusive people sometimes use pets as proxies. It would be great if you started a shelter than let the women bring their pets.

  6. 6
    Alas Reader says:

    To answer some questions:

    The house is unmistakably on the church grounds. It’s suburban, and it’s right on the street, which has a middle-level of traffic on it – not a residential access road, but not a divided or multi-lane road, either. The church itself is set well back off the street and in fact is hard to see due to trees, the rectory, etc. Due east (and across the street) is a rather large Park District, with soccer fields and a gym/activity center. South is a residence. West is part of the rest of the church grounds. North is the rest of the rest of the church grounds (a total of 5 acres) and then a couple of residences. A block north is a middle school. There is no public transport in the area, except for a train station about 10 minutes by car away that goes into the city. Few people depend on the bus route to get anywhere, they drive; the bus route serves to bring people from the city to a couple of major employers in the area.

    The suburb is famous in the metropolitan area for having a number of wealthy (by anyone’s standards) families with homes ranging in the $1,000,000 to $5,000,000 range and perhaps more. It is well known to the locals (while less well known to non-locals) that there are a number of middle-class families, and even a (very) few homeless families. Unfortunately for our balance sheet, none of the extremely wealthy (or even “moderately wealthy”) families belong to our church. They tend to join much more elaborate churches of our denomination in nearby suburbs. The feedback I’ve heard is that they do so to see and be seen by their own class.

    The church has neither a full-time priest/minister nor an administrator on the premises. The parish has a membership of about 70 people. Our total annual budget this year is $130,000, and that’s quite a stretch. In fact, we don’t have that much income budgeted, and adopted it basically on faith. It would be difficult for the parishioners to offer a lot of services directly to the residents of the house. There’s little room in the church for an office that would be occupied full-time – the worship space can hold about 160 people, but there’s very little non-worship space. We had thought that we could probably get grants to support an administrator, etc.

    We have been approached by a immigrant/refugee organization to see if they could use the rectory, and we are seriously considering the request; they will be coming to our next board meeting to make a presentation. However, a parishioner had previously asked me to investigate whether or not using the rectory as a battered women’s shelter, so I didn’t want to proceed too far on the immigrant shelter proposal without having investigated our parishioner’s request. So I’m trying to figure out how to do just that. I do thank you all very much for your suggestions!

  7. 7
    petitpoussin says:

    Consulting with other local shelters and domestic violence agencies seems like the best first step, as others have said — it is entirely possible that three bedrooms + a basement could make a difference in emergency situations, depending on the size of the rooms. The house could also have other uses, such as a meeting place for support groups, or another kind of housing, as Kevin suggested.

    I actually know a bit about funding/operating emergency and transitional housing, so Amp, if you wanted to pass my email on to this person, I would love to talk more.

  8. 8
    Lisa B says:

    As a former counselor-advocate for battered women, I’d recommend that you contact the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

  9. 9
    Alas Reader says:

    I’d like to thank everyone who commented. This information and the references and links given have proved quite useful and will help us proceed to a sensible decision. I have communicated with an organization in my state (which I found based on what I saw here) and I’ll move forward with them. The idea of using the rectory for immigrant/refugee temporary housing has also been suggested and we are in contact with an organization involved in such things who is quite interested. Thanks again – I was confident that people on this blog would have the information I needed, and I was right!

  10. 10
    fran says:

    I was thinking of starting a battered womens shelter but I wanted to know how I would go about doing that and how much it would cost.what type of place would be good. I use to be a battered women 6years ago and i survived. Please give me any input you think would be helpful for me.

  11. 11
    fran says:

    I can relate to these women and this is something I really want to do. I know its going to be hard but I believe I can do it. I feel like because i can relate i can help them because I know what they are going through. I know i might sound silly but this is somthing that has been weighing heavy on my heart for the longest. I didnt have someone to talk to or to run to for help. I alway felt like no one care. I Care. I know my calling is to help people and not medically

  12. 12
    kellie mccornell says:

    i was looking for some answer to about open up a shelter home i have a 5 bedroom
    2 bath will be for women or a sober home just trying to see if anyone know what it will takje to open one up!