Sara Young packed a bag of essentials, gathered her children and ran home in search of shelter: an old green house that blended into the neighborhood in this southwestern Montana town.
Nothing in the house identified it as a shelter for victims of domestic violence; it was hidden in plain sight. Young was not allowed to give the address to anyone. The secrecy made her feel safe. But her roommate, a young mother, struggled to care for her baby without a family. Some residents could not go to work because they did not have a car. Several members of the household tried to sneak out at night to get a break from curfews, closed windows and alarm systems.
We were there because we had to stay safe, Young said. "I was comfortable. They felt like they were in prison."
The long-established norm for domestic violence shelters is for residents to hide at unknown addresses. This model stems from the belief that secrecy protects survivors from their abusers. But directors of domestic violence shelters said keeping their locations secret has become more difficult and the practice can isolate residents.
Now some shelters are moving to the open air. This spring, the Bozeman nonprofitRefugiocompleted construction of a campus minutes from the main highway leading into the city that replaced the greenhouse. The name of the non-profit organization is written in bold letters on the side of the new building.
There is space for a communal garden, yoga classes and a place for guests to host friends. It is within walking distance of a supermarket and primary school and borders the town park which is a popular place for people to walk their dogs or go fishing.
Erica Coyl, Haven's executive director, said the nonprofit's former home has been a not-so-well-kept secret in the city of more than 54,000 for years.
"It's not our job to rescue survivors and keep them hidden," Coyle said. "What we need to do in general, as communities and as a movement, is listen to survivors and when they say, 'The isolation of being in a shelter is a huge barrier for me.'"
Similar changes are penetrating the entire country. During the last years,organizations in UtahThe US and Colorado have built public shelters that connect clients with on-site resources, such as legal services. A victim support organization in New York has been working on this for years.lay the foundationscreate shelters where residents can invite friends and family.
Why doesn't California protect victims of domestic violence?
David Mora shot and killed his three daughters and partner during a supervised visit last year. The children's mother warned the courts that it was dangerous, but no one listened.
Rural states like Montana appear to be transitioning to open shelters before urban areas. Kelsen Young, Chief Executive OfficerMontana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual ViolenceHe said it's probably because it's harder to keep a place a secret in cities where everyone knows each other. Shelters in Missoula and Helena changed years ago, and she said plans are in the works elsewhere.
Gina Boesdorfer, Executive DirectorFriendship Centerin Helena, hiding places are said to force survivors into hiding rather than supporting people in their communities and normal routines.
"It really highlights the lack of other support and resources in the community," Boesdorfer said. "It still puts the onus on the victim instead of the perpetrator."
No one keeps track of how many shelters have switched to an open model.Lisa Goodman, a psychologist and professor at Boston College who studies how to improve systems for survivors of violence, said Refugiosdefinition of "open"varies
Some open shelters have simply stopped hiding their addresses, allowing residents to take an elevator to work and keeping the buildings off limits. Others allow residents to entertain in their rooms or offer communal gathering spaces.
"As the domestic violence movement has been, it's growing from the bottom up," Goodman said.
A new bill offers hope to victims of domestic violence who commit violent crimes
The Assembly bill would allow victims of human trafficking or domestic violence to present evidence of their abuse as an affirmative defense during criminal trials.
The first shelters were created when women took in other women. Beginning in the 1970s, shelters were built under the assumption that secrecy was the safest. But as the shelters grew to serve more people, staying hidden became less practical as more survivors worked and their children attended school. Not to mention the challenge of technological advancements like GPS phone tracking.
Goodman said there is no national shelter guideline that considers the open model. Each must weigh big questions, such as: How do shelters monitor visitors to make sure they don't pose a threat? How to protect a survivor of an abuserstill loose and dangerous? And how do you balance independence for residents with confidentiality for those who want it?
Going public isn't always an easy sell after decades of emphasis on secrecy.
In 2021, a once-tucked-away getaway in Colorado's Vail Valley, a cluster of rural towns nestled between premier ski resorts, opened a new facility. The property includes small apartments as well as services such as behavioral health, housing and legal assistance for residents and non-residents.
sheri mintz, principalBright Future Foundation, the owner of the shelter, said it took time to build acceptance. Some domestic violence advocates feared the transition would threaten the safety of survivors.
In response, the organization upgraded the shelter's security system well beyond its previous location. Police officers toured the facility to check security and create plans to respond to security breaches.
"We haven't had any serious incidents so far," Mintz said. "We have always had a situation where there are clients who can be victims of harassment. I don't see it increasing or changing in any way since we've been in this public shelter.
In New York,Olga Rodriguez-Vidal, vice president of the shelter for victims of domestic violencesafe horizon, says the victim support organization is still working to attract funders with an open model.
There, leadership hopes to create a mix of confidential emergency accommodation for people coming out of crisis, while residents in more transit homes can decide if they want visitors.
"This is very new and innovative and maybe a little scary," Rodríguez-Vidal said.
Domestic violence has increased during quarantine, and injuries are dramatically more serious, research shows
The number of injuries attributed to domestic violence increased sharply after the start of the coronavirus epidemic, and these injuries were more severe.
In Bozeman, Haven has two buildings on the new campus. The first is an information center with offices for employees, customer service and space for community events. Cameras linked to the security system can flag license plates of known abusers, and every visitor is screened before being notified.
The new site allows for much more sophisticated security systems compared to what a nonprofit might use to blend into the neighborhood, Coyle said.
Inside, the building is designed to feel like a safe space for people who have experienced trauma. Every window has a view of what will become the estate's gardens. Adult therapy rooms are located on one side of the building. One of those rooms overlooks the playroom, so parents can get help knowing their children are safe.
The Haven house, just steps away from the main hub, is still off limits to maintaining a private space for anyone but staff and tenants. Survivors choose when and whether to communicate through neighborhood events. The access to the houses of the tenants is closed and private.
Sara Young was one of the survivors who helped design Haven's new home. In general, she is excited about the changes. He is happy that there is more space for residents compared to the house that was his refuge and that it is easier to access services.
But Young is a little unsure about the idea of a public shelter. She felt safe knowing that the address was not public for her ex to see. He liked that the neighbors in the shelter didn't necessarily know why he was there; she didn't want to feel judged for being in an insecure relationship. But addressing the public wouldn't stop Young from showing up.
"I was desperate. I'm sure I would have left," Young said, adding that without that help she wouldn't have the stability she feels today. "But I didn't want anyone to know."
On the other hand, Young said, maybe an outdoor shelter would help alleviate the judgment she feared and help more people understand that anyone can get caught up in unsafe relationships and what they should do if that happens.
He plans to see how that plays out.
KFF health news, formerly known as Kaiser Health News, is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health topics.