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Forms of shelter and alternative accommodation

Last edited: September 14, 2012

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The presence and scope of services provided by shelters vary greatly across regions and between communities. Shelter models are heavily influenced by the availability and level of funding they receive (whether from the state or external donors), as well as the extent to which funding is sustained. A women’s shelter is typically defined by:

  • Specific goals related to protection and safety, empowerment and social change.
  • Clearly defined target groups of women. While most commonly associated with intimate partner violence, shelters may provide safe accommodation and services for women (and possibly girls) escaping other forms of physical, emotional, sexual and economic violence. This may include abuse committed by a family member (e.g. in cases of honour-related crimes, sexual abuse, forced marriage, female genital mutilation); or other perpetrators (e.g. in cases of sexual assault, rape, gang violence, sexual exploitation and trafficking across or within borders). Shelters may also support children of women seeking assistance.
  • Operating principles which guide the manner in which shelters support and provide services to survivors and engage in the community.
  • Provision of specialized support services, enhanced security, safety precautions and planning by dedicated staff (Erturk, 2008; Women against Violence Europe, 2004).

 In general, shelter accommodation may be categorized as follows:

  • Emergency shelters (also known as refuge or first stage emergency housing), provide short or medium-term secure accommodation and emotional support for women who enter with or without dependent children, from a few days up to a few months. In addition to these core services, services may include transportation and provision of household/ personal goods, as well as more extensive support, including counseling, referrals, individual advocacy with community agencies and service providers, crisis telephone support, safety planning, programmes for affected children and follow-up for former residents.
  • Second stage/transitional housing facilities offer longer-term accommodation ranging from six months to one year or more, along with support and referral services to assist women and their families in the transition from emergency shelter to permanent housing. Where possible, units may have increased security measures such as locked doors and windows, alarm systems or response systems; and facilities may provide anonymous and confidential services (such as ongoing emotional support for residents, including through women's and children's groups).
  • Third stage housing may be available for women who have completed a second stage programme but still need subsidized housing and support in their community. While there are various manifestations of this model, it may result in permanent housing for some survivors or referrals to specialized housing options to address specific needs (e.g. disabilities, substance abuse issues, mental illness). Because residential units may be part of a community’s public/social housing system, enhanced security measures may not be available to residents, but ongoing emotional support is often provided (i.e. provision of follow-up services by staff/advocates or support from related community-based resources made available through housing initiatives (Tutty, et al. 2009b).

  Alternatives to shelter facilities include:

  • Safe homes or networks, which are private residential spaces made available by community members on an emergency and temporary basis (1-7 days), due to the various risks and complexity involved in supporting women through community-homes. They are more commonly used in rural or remote areas where a fully operating shelter has not been established. Some communities have also created a network of private homes, and where possible, safe homes may be linked with an existing shelter facility or organizations supporting survivors to provide women access to a wider range of services, and enable them to liaise with a professional specialized on the issue (Tutty, et. al., 2009; Hightower & Smith, 2006; Smith & Hightower, 2005). 
  • Emergency safe spaces, which may be developed in a variety of locations (e.g. hotels, rooms in hospitals/medical centres, in faith-based institutions-churches, mosques, temples, etc., or spaces available within community-based organizations and business venues), also provide temporary physical protection and accommodation to women, and should be linked with longer-term comprehensive support services. 
  • Confidential private accommodation, such as community housing facilities (i.e. apartments) made safer through specific security measures, is a model often used with trafficking survivors or women with particular security needs. They offer decentralized, flexible, and secret apartments or houses instead of one central space to protect women against future violence or retaliation by perpetrators (e.g. organized crime networks, family members). Once security standards and systems are in place, the specific apartment can be used with different women or left vacant as needed to maintain the confidentiality of the location for longer periods of time (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe & Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, 2004). 
  • Sanctuary schemes, which incorporate security measures within a woman’s home and remove the perpetrator, provide an alternative option in some domestic violence cases, and enable her to remain in her home rather than seeking safe accommodation in a new location. As with safe homes or networks, this option is only feasible in certain circumstances (e.g. lower risk of lethal violence; strong police presence to monitor orders for protection), given the security risks when staying in the home.