Safe Passage closes shelter: Northampton nonprofit looks to new model to help domestic violence survivors

By EMILY THURLOW

Staff Writer

Published: 05-22-2023 6:15 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Having determined that maintaining a shelter is no longer the best way to help survivors of interpersonal and domestic violence, the leaders of Safe Passage have closed a confidential emergency shelter that opened nearly a half-century ago.

The nonprofit organization, headquartered on Carlon Drive in Northampton, will still provide services and resources to violence survivors but for a variety of reasons has opted to close the undisclosed shelter that since 1977 has served as a temporary home for those who need urgent and safe relocation, Executive Director Marianne Winters said.

One of the driving factors in the decision, Winters said, is that shelter stays now last about 15 months, far more than the standard two- to three-month stays in the past.

“It was rare that survivors would stay beyond 90 days,” said Winters, adding that many shelter stays include a 90-day limit with very few exceptions.

While that was an adequate amount of time for the majority of cases when apartments were readily available, these days, housing availability is much more limited.

With that challenge, combined with social support networks diminishing and the increase in cases of domestic violence exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Winters said what they’re finding at Safe Passage is that the average stay for families has grown to well beyond a year.

After much research, analysis and deliberation, Winters said that it has become clear that maintaining the shelter program is no longer a viable option. Safe Passage rented shelter space until 2002, when the agency purchased its current building. The location has remained hidden to protect its survivors.

“Well-being, in part, depends on social connections and being part of a community and building connections — having someone pick up your child after school if you’re sick that day, or those ways of being that you can develop once you’re settled,” Winters said. “Being transient is hurtful and so being in this temporary situation where you’re here because it’s an emergency but this emergency is lasting almost a year and a half, and in some cases more, it interrupts the family’s life rather than helps them support building a new life.”

Challenges withcongregate spaces

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Before its closing — the organization has found housing for the families last living there — Winters said the space was always full. However, because families were staying longer, fewer people were being helped at the shelter than in the past.

Safe Passage used a congregate living model in the six-room shelter, meaning that the living space of each family — which may include a parent, a newborn, a teenager and a toddler — was confined to one room. Common areas were shared by all, including a dining room, a kitchen and bathrooms.

Very often, families entered the space with trauma, which amplified conflicts as each family came with a different set of needs. For example, one family could have a child with an allergy to peanut butter and another family might have a child who only eats peanut butter. Others could be struggling with mental health or substance use issues.

“This creates a situation where families have come together in this congregate living situation with people that they really didn’t choose, and with people from all over the state, so that it can’t help but also create problem situations as part of that experience,” Winters said. “So there’s the experience of domestic violence and people are taking their first steps to repair. And then there’s the experience of living in a congregation shelter that really, we would love to be able to hold it as a community so that people became each other’s support network. But the reality is, it’s not a community that they chose.”

Winters said that the conditions of a congregate shelter for a long period of time only work if the people living there are able to benefit from the community structure.

When Safe Passage first opened, it was not uncommon for families to be able to pick up a newspaper and circle some apartment ads that were available within the next month. Nowadays, that’s not a normal experience, especially for people who are marginalized, she said.

What’s next?

Though the shelter program has disbanded, the agency and its 76 Carlon Drive location will remain operational. It will continue to offer survivor-centered and trauma-informed programming, including legal services, counseling and support groups, as well services for children and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, said that Safe Passage’s decision was a “brave step” toward stronger programming that will benefit the greater Northampton community.

“With each passing year, our service organizations are challenged by new technologies, new economic circumstances, and new understandings of best practices,” Sabadosa said in a statement. “Safe Passage has long been a leader in supporting survivors and they have always taken to heart their responsibility to provide the most effective programming possible.”

In the months ahead, Safe Passage will take a broader approach with a goal of meeting people earlier than the point of needing emergency shelter. The organization will undertake a comprehensive program development initiative focused on providing housing advocacy and economic justice.

Winters said the goal is to establish a data-driven and evidence-based initiative that will include best practices for supporting survivors, group-based support with trauma-informed strategies to economic self-sufficiency, extensive community collaborations, and public policy advocacy efforts.

“We’ve known for a long time that there are deep economic impacts of domestic violence. When someone is in a domestic violence situation, health and mental health diminishes, access to resources either gets sabotaged or diminished,” Winters said. “And so by the time people come to a shelter, their risk for violence is way high. And conversely, all of the elements that they need in place to maintain well being are low. So very often the person is at the eviction moment. They may be facing some mental health challenges, they might have lost their job. Their education has been interrupted.

“We would like to meet people earlier because at that point, there may be domestic violence or signs of domestic violence, there are more resources that the person has intact in their life.”

Winters said that the three staff members who previously worked at the shelter are continuing with the organization as they understand the barriers survivors of interpersonal violence face, such as housing availability.

The nonprofit will be launching a housing and economic empowerment program, which will include outreach staff and building collaborations in the areas of workforce development and transportation.

Additionally, with the loss of the emergency shelter program, Safe Passage will be losing state contract funding. Winters said the organization will be looking to other funding, including state and federal grants. She also spoke to the ongoing community support Safe Passage receives both from personal donors and donations raised at the annual Hot Chocolate Run.

Debra Robbin, executive director of Jane Doe Inc., the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, lauded Safe Passage for taking what she called an “intentional approach” to its decision, adding that it reflects the organization’s commitment to aligning with the needs of survivors in Hampshire County.

“We look forward to continuing to support and partner with Safe Passage, a JDI member program, as they develop innovative initiatives that reflect the complex challenges facing survivors, fill important gaps, and make progress towards true liberation,” Robbin said in a statement.

Those in need of emergency shelter should call the Safelink hotline for information about available shelter options across the state at 1-877-785-2020.

Counselors from Safe Passage are also available Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., to help connect those in need to additional housing resources.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.]]>