October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and Refinery29 has partnered with Safe Horizon to bring our readers real stories from domestic violence survivors and their advocates. Ahead, we visit two of its New York City shelters. Survivors' names have been changed for their safety.
In conversations around domestic violence, a "shelter" so often becomes an abstract symbol — of both desperation and optimism, of the last resort and a fresh start — that we forget it’s also a physical setting where survivors of abuse sleep, eat, talk, work, play, and heal. What's more, for the safety of those who live in them, shelters are often unidentifiable from the outside and inaccessible to people who don't need their services.
To shed light on these spaces, Safe Horizon — the largest provider of domestic violence shelter in the country — invited us into two of its shelters, Lotus House and Rose House, to meet staff members and speak with Terrance and Gabriela, two of the 2,200 survivors the organization has housed over the past year. Terrance, 45, escaped an abusive relationship in September of 2014 and has been living at Lotus House for what he calls "a fascinating, wonderful year." Gabriela, 33, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, is staying with her two daughters at Rose House after 13 years with a financially abusive husband who blocked her path to citizenship. (Her interview has been translated from Spanish.) Their stories weave together both devastation and hope.
On the supply side, it's a challenging moment for those working to put roofs over the heads of those fleeing from domestic violence. "Because of the housing and homeless crisis in New York City, folks are staying longer in our shelters than they have in years in the past," explains Kelly Coyne, Safe Horizon's Vice President of Domestic Violence Shelters. "Finding an affordable place is usually top on the [list of] things that survivors are worried about...[and] they have to navigate figuring out new childcare opportunities, all while worrying about safety and [how] this person who was supposed to love them is the person trying to hurt them." Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration is moving to address the need for more safe space, pledging $15 million
last month to fund shelter beds and transitional apartments specifically for New York City's abuse survivors.
Throughout shelters in all five boroughs of New York City, Safe Horizon currently offers some 700 beds. It also provides meals, support groups, one-on-one counseling, and educational and recreational activities for those who come through its doors, over half of whom are children. "We have an amazing liaison with the Department of Education," Rose House director Olga Rodriguez tells us. "It's really important to foster good relationships with community providers. We have a cooking class here with a chef that comes for eight weeks at a time and they do cooking with the kids, and a teacher's aide is going to come and do tutoring with the kids four times a week."
Throughout its programming, Safe Horizon emphasizes opportunities rather than directives. "The clients are the experts in their own lives," Lotus House's director Jennifer Elcock says. "We really support the things that they want to do instead of imposing, 'Oh, well, I'm the expert, I'm the social worker, and this is what you should do.' Effective listening is about 'So, what do you wanna do, how do you want us to support you as well?'"
The stories of Gabriela and Terrance, the survivors with whom we spoke, echo this theme of support. Click through to view 16 poignant photos taken inside Safe Horizon's shelters and read about Gabriela's and Terrance's experiences, in their own words.
Safe Horizon’s #PutTheNailinIt campaign asks men and women to support victims of abuse and take a stand against domestic violence. Join the campaign by donating at safehorizon.org; then, paint your left ring fingernail purple — use the hashtag #PutTheNailinIt to show your vow to end domestic violence.
Additional Reporting by Kelly Bourdet