What to Expect at a Domestic Violence Shelter

Survivors may feel hesitant about contacting a local domestic violence shelter. And that’s partly because they don’t know what to expect or what questions they’ll be asked. The process of seeking a safe shelter can feel overwhelming, especially if a survivor has previously reached out for assistance in the past and then been turned away.

It is important to know that each shelter can have unique policies and procedures, but having a general understanding of the intake process can provide some relief. When contacting a shelter, a survivor can expect to be asked a variety of questions. To begin the phone conversation, a staff member will typically ask if they are in a safe place to talk. This is to ensure that a survivor has privacy and isn’t in immediate physical danger.

During the initial screening process over the phone, a survivor will be walked through what is called a risk assessment to determine the level of danger. Shelters often prioritize space based on the level of these risk assessment responses, so it’s important to answer as honestly as possible.

After a survivor provides responses to the risk assessment, they can expect to be asked about medication, pets, children; if police were contacted or involved during any incident(s) of abuse, and if the abuser has access to firearms or other weapons in the home. Some shelters have partnerships with local animal welfare programs to assist with the care of pets, or they may have on-site shelter for pets.

Now that we’ve covered the first steps of the intake process, let’s take a look at some frequently asked questions.

Are shelters only for those who meet certain income requirements, such as low-income?
No, shelters are meant to be a safe space for people with all income levels. Survivors do not have to pay to stay in the shelter. There is no income verification.

How do I find out about shelters in my area?
Shelters are available (for men and women) nationwide. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is an excellent contact since it maintains a national database. The phone number is 1-800-799-7233, where advocates are available 24/7 to assist with questions and safety planning.  Or, if a survivor is connected to WiFi but has no phone access or it isn’t safe to talk on the phone, live chat is available 24/7 at TheHotline.org. The website provides lots of in-depth information on safety planning, shelters, self-care, types of abusive behaviors and root causes of violence.

How can I prepare ahead of time, if I’m thinking about going to a shelter?
There are times when a survivor will have to leave quickly. To prepare, write down numbers and addresses to local shelters and know of the nearest police station.

Many survivors often find working with an advocate through this process helps to ensure a solid safety plan. If you’d like to learn about local advocacy services, please click here.

An emergency bag is recommended with money and/or credit cards, copies of important documents (birth certificates, social security cards, etc.), a set of keys, medications, a cell phone, and a change of clothes for you and your children. You might want to consider preparing your bag ahead of time to keep with a trusted family member or friend in case you have to leave quickly.

Keeping extra money with family or friends can help with emergency situations.

Family and friends may pressure survivors by saying “Just leave right now.” The survivor should determine a time that is safest and best for them to leave. Be sure to check with the shelter in your area to determine if it accepts incoming residents 24/7. This is why it’s so important to work with an advocate to create a personalized safety plan.

Will the shelter staff have to report to the police that I’m staying here?
No, unless there is an escalated situation regarding custody or a missing person. Survivors can share if they want to, but advocates or lawyers aren’t required to report to police.

Will the shelter help with my needs?
Advocates and staff at shelters want to help and support however they can, especially regarding clothing, food, medicine, etc. They can provide necessities (at no cost), such as a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap and general hygiene products.

Are shelters secure?
It’s important to know that shelters can often look like regular houses in a neighborhood, opposed to a facility. This is for the safety of both the staff and survivors in the building. Most shelters have security systems, a gated or fenced entryway and 24-hour staff. Sometimes, shelter addresses are not available to the public in order to maintain confidentiality.

What can I expect once I arrive at a shelter?
Upon arrival, survivors can expect to fill out paperwork, similar to that of a doctor’s office. This includes signing confidentiality forms and liability releases. Advocates are present to provide support and answer questions. During this time, survivors absolutely have the right to say “no” to any questions, and should feel empowered to set boundaries.

Survivors can also expect a brief “orientation” process, where a staff member or volunteer will show them around the shelter and provide details on how to get bedding, food, etc.

No one ever expects to find themselves in a shelter. It can be a great support system and an encouraging place. Though it is a temporary solution to a larger issue, the goal of shelters is to provide a safe and secure space for survivors, their children and sometimes, even their pets.

To raise awareness this month, please share this article with friends and family on social media, using hashtags #DVAM2018, #DVFacts and #SurvivorSpeaks.



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