Domestic Violence Shelters – The Basics

Woman thinking about her options
Woman thinking about her options

Domestic violence shelters are a relatively recent development in the modern world. They are transitional living situations for women and children who need a place to literally hide from threats and stalking. Almost all are nonprofits, receiving operating funds from donations and local, state, and federal grants. There is no charge to the women who use the services.

Because shelters are typically independent, connected by referral networks, each one has a personality, rules, and services that different from others, but they do share some things in common: they are free, they are secret in that no one knows where they are and occupants pledge not to tell where they are living, and safety and confidentiality are high priorities.  These priorities make them look and feel very different from other temporary housing resources.

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The most basic service provided by domestic violence shelters is to hide people in danger, when stalking or harassment escalate to the point where moving in with a friend or relative, or moving to a different location won’t keep a person safe. Children are included both because the escaping parent is their primary caregiver and because they are likely being abused as well — don’t forget that witnessing abuse is considered child abuse even if the child is not the one being attacked.

HOW DO I FIND A SHELTER? There are several ways to find a domestic violence shelter. One is to get a referral from police who answer a domestic violence help call or talk to you at the police station about an incident that has frightened you. The other is to call a domestic violence hotline, a 24-hour telephone number which can connect you with places to live in safety while you decide what to do next. There are such hotlines around the world. The internet is the best place to look – and please do your looking on a safe computer, one to which your abuser has no access.

CALLING A HOTLINE: One of the scariest things in life is making a call to domestic violence hotline. Not only is it embarrassing to share you personal problems with a voice over the phone, what if they claim you are exaggerating or lying, or say they have no place for someone like you?

While it is possible to have a bad experience with a hotline, it is more likely that you will be glad you called. Shelters are not connected to any law enforcement or immigration agency. You do not have to give your real name or other personal information. Everything you choose to tell a hotline counselor is confidential, with the possible exception of instances of child abuse where the agency may be a mandated reporter. If you think this might apply to your situation, ask what the policies are and what help the agency offers.


I have to be sure I want a divorce before they will help me. Severe family dysfunction is a very complicated situation. It is typical for an abused partner to leave several times, hoping the acute problems will die down, then reconcile and return home to see if things will be better. No one will be surprised or angry with you if you decide to return to someone abusive. The shelter will be there for you if you need it in the future.

I have to have a police report to be taken seriously. Domestic violence advocates and support organizations understand far better than the “outside world” that abuse doesn’t have to be physical to be destructive, frightening, and overwhelming for adults and children. Hotline counselors can help you decide if a shelter is what you need at this point.

I have to be poor and without other resources to qualify for shelter. The reason for going to a domestic violence shelter is because you are not safe from being stalked, harassed or attacked in an ordinary living situation. If your abuser could show up at the homes of relatives or friends if you stay with them, finding a place where you cannot be tracked down is essential.

I need a lot more than just a roof over my head.  While at the shelter you will have a safe place to live and access to counseling, legal services, and assistance with planning your future. You can also access these services from the organization that runs the shelter without actually staying at the shelter.

I have special needs, a disability, keep kosher, can’t leave my pet, etc. Talk to hotline counselors about your situation. You aren’t the first person with needs. There are solutions for them all.

I called a hotline and they were rude, uninformed, or said they couldn’t help me. Please, please, please call another hotline, and keep asking until you get the information you need and are treated in a way that makes you feel comfortable and safe.

Do I have to be in crisis to call? Absolutely not! Call with your questions, concerns, or just to be heard by somebody who understands what you are going through and will keep your conversation confidential. A DV advocate can also help you formulate a safety plan to help you weather the next outburst or blowup in your relationship.

There is help out there. You deserve it!

MORE:  Abuse with a Side of Rejection

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