Fighting Domestic Violence With Architecture and Design

A new generation of shelters is changing the way women and children recover from abusive environments.

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YWCA Pierce County

What should a domestic violence shelter look like?

It’s not something most people think about, or even want to think about. For so long, the whole issue of domestic violence has been pushed out of the public eye. Back in the 1970s, when the movement to provide safe places for women and children to escape their abusers was just getting started, shelters were often makeshift and improvised. They were usually single-family homes converted to communal dwellings, where several families would stay together while awaiting more permanent placement. No one in the larger community knew much about these shelters, because they were mostly kept secret – a tactic that was, at the time, thought to be the only way to keep survivors safe.

As I learned when working at such a shelter myself in the late 1990s, this kind of housing arrangement can cause more strain on women and families that have already been pushed to extremity. Imagine being at one of the most frightening and confusing points in your life, then being thrown suddenly into a roommate situation with several strangers who are also in crisis, all the while feeling like you are in hiding and isolated from the larger community around you.

That original configuration of shelter housing has persisted, but it is not necessarily the best model, says Margaret Hobart of the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV). And so, a generation after the first shelters were opened around the country, her organization was one of many wondering if things could be done differently. That process led to a partnership with the architecture firm Mahlum and a website, Building Dignity, that gives domestic violence agencies around the country resources and models for fundamentally changing the way shelters are structured.

“It grew out of the work we were doing in rethinking shelter rules,” says Hobart. “We were thinking how rules can really run counter to our goals, which are empowerment and autonomy for women.”

In the traditional communal shelter, she says, women often feel the opposite of empowered, as they have to conform to multiple restrictions on their most basic activities, from how they deal with their children to how they interact with the outside world. The way such shelters are set up, Hobart says, forces people who are in a fragile state already into situations that have the potential for conflict. The result is a tightly regulated and sometimes counterproductive environment.

"Most of the rules had to do with managing families and the shortcomings of buildings," says Hobart. She started with a small pilot program asking shelter residents what they needed and wanted from a shelter. The residents took pictures and filled out questionnaires about what they liked and didn’t like about the places they found themselves living.

Then WSCADV took all that data and teamed up with the architects of Mahlum, a firm with offices in Seattle and Portland, Oregon. The match was made by The 1%, a project of Public Architecture that connects nonprofits and architecture firms seeking to do pro bono work.

Together, staff members from Mahlum and WSCADV put together the Building Dignity website, showcasing floor plans and photos of a new type of shelter that gives women and children more private space. One example that's already been built is the YWCA Pierce County, which emphasizes fully decorated private apartments.

Hobart says these newer shelters are also more open to the community. In most cases, the idea of a secret location has been abandoned. “Because of technology, secrecy is over,” says Hobart. “You cannot keep a secret about anything anymore without being really oppressive.”

But changing police and community attitudes have also created a new kind of safety, she says. "The community wants that shelter to be a safe place," says Hobart. "The level of shame isn’t the same as it used to be. We’ve been educating on that for 30 years." And while the worst-case scenario of an abuser showing up at a shelter can happen whether the location is "secret" or not, it rarely does. "Batterers really aren’t going to show up at a place where people are going to hold them accountable," she says. "That’s not part of their program."

Staff morale has gone up dramatically at the new type of shelters, says Hobart. Community involvement has also increased, with volunteers coming in to offer services such as financial counseling. But most important has been the change in the way the women feel about where they are living. Parents have a place to do homework with their kids and give them a stable home routine. Single people don’t have to be subjected to the routine chaos of children. Everybody has more control – the very thing their abusers took away from them.

"The real harm is loss of autonomy and the ability to make decisions," says Hobart. "We want more than a space where hitting is not happening." The Building Dignity website holds up a replicable model of how to create such a space with architecture and design.

One resident of the YWCA Pierce County quoted on the site put it this way: "Everyone should know, we should start making shelters beautiful; because when it’s beautiful like that it does something to you … It does something wonderful to see all this beautifulness."

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.