New Website Offers Design Strategies for Domestic Violence Shelters

Building Dignity logoA new website from the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence explores design strategies for domestic violence shelters, based on the premise that thoughtful design dignifies survivors by meeting their needs for self-determination, security and connection.

Earlier this year, Margaret Hobart of the Washington coalition and Corrie Rosen from architecture firm Mahlum gave a webinar that took about 90 advocates from across the country on a guided tour of the site, called Building Dignity. Hobart and Rosen said survivors and advocates informed the development of the website, which can be helpful to programs in redecorating, remodeling or rebuilding their domestic violence shelters.

Building Dignity offers a variety of strategies, from easy and affordable redecorating tips to major renovation strategies requiring longer term planning and investment. Quotes from survivors, case studies describing how domestic violence programs have employed a particular strategy, and links to additional information are also on the site.

The Link Between Survivor Autonomy and Shelter Design

Domestic violence shelters, which are largely funded in the United States by Family Violence Prevention and Services Act grants administered by the Family and Youth Services Bureau, provide lifesaving assistance to abuse survivors. 

Women drinking coffee and smilingNearly three-quarters of survivors (74 percent) in a study (PDF, 949KB) rated the assistance they received as very helpful, and another 18 percent said it was helpful.  However, research also shows that many survivors struggle with some shelter rules related to eligibility for admission, what they must do while they are in residence and how long they may stay. 

While most rules are created to address safety concerns or solve conflicts resulting from communal living, excessive rules may hinder developing feelings of autonomy in survivors. 

Shelters, therefore, can be most helpful when their physical environments reflect and reinforce values such as empowerment, safety, connection, parenting and harmony, according to Hobart and Rosen. For example, private spaces can help survivors heal from trauma, regain autonomy and reclaim their ability to parent their children. Screens or enclosures at parking areas can help to protect confidentiality. The use of keycards at external doors, instead of regular keys, can allow residents to come and go more freely and safely. 

As more and more programs have begun to rethink shelter rules, Hobart and Rosen said Building Dignity aims to help advocates create environments where survivors can feel secure and autonomous.

“[Building Dignity] will help improve my shelter rules workshops by giving staff a clearer understanding of residents thoughts and needs, and providing ideas on the use of current technology to improve an existing shelter,” said a webinar participant.

Building  Dignity is part of the Washington coalition’s "Shelter Rules Advocacy Toolkit," which also includes critical questions to consider, information on how programs have made minimal rules work, and a variety of free articles and other resources.

FYSB’s Family Violence Prevention and Services Program funds state domestic violence coalitions, including the Washington coalition. The groups provide technical assistance and training to local domestic violence programs and serve as critical partners for coordination of statewide services and emerging issues such as domestic violence and home visitation. State domestic violence coalitions improve domestic violence intervention and prevention in their states by ensuring cross-coordinated, best practice solutions are implemented and sustained. Every state and some territories have one federally recognized coalition.