Shelter Me

(Updated April 2011)

Illustration by Deron Cohen

I’ve gone by the red brick townhouse just about every Saturday for two years without ever suspecting it’s a top-secret women’s shelter. It looks like every other sleepy Lancaster, Pa., residence, but crack open those colonial-shuttered windows and inside you’ll find a hive of women and children teaching each other how to live a violence-free life.

When I requested a tour, I was directed to the parking lot in back. “You’ll see the no trespassing signs, and park as close to the building as you can,” I was told. Abusers have a habit of smashing car windows. The door off the parking lot’s ramp is barely wide enough for most motorized wheelchair users and the security camera locks on my face. I barely touch the doorbell before the call box asks who I am, what I want and who I’m there to see.

Inside I’m greeted by Bonnie Glover, the ebullient  director of Domestic Violence Services of Lancaster County. The narrow ramp embarrasses her, but she says it fit the code of the time it was built — over 20 years ago. Never have they turned away a woman because the door isn’t wide enough. “We find a way to get her in,” says Glover. All the other doors to the outside have steps.

The industrial-sized kitchen’s lunch board has today’s menu in all the common local languages–English, Spanish, Vietnamese and German, the latter being the mother tongue for many of the Pennsylvania Dutch. The cook gives us Styrofoam cups of fruit punch and we take the elevator to Glover’s office where we meet with Theresa Robinson, the tough volunteer coordinator at the time this story was published. Robinson only seems tough at first. Like Glover, the cook and everyone else I meet here, she just has her priorities–keep as many abused women as safe as possible. With its passionate staff, bulletproof glass, panic buttons, security cameras and the police department on speed dial, this house is a well-guarded fortress.

I’m shown the major program offices, congregating areas and a few of the 15 bedrooms, including the accessible one. Most manual wheelchair users can use the majority of the other rooms as well, and all of the common areas are basically accessible. The bathroom’s tight, the proudly-accessible shower is really a bathtub with handrails, the smoking area is cramped and some of the offices are up steps, but this shelter is more accessible than I feared it would be, considering the national statistics. It may not be as comfortable as an ADA-standard Holiday Inn, but the shelter and its staff will do what it takes to give a woman wheelchair user the same chance for freedom as every other battered woman.

Yet new accessibility features are being installed and renovations are underway with the help of federal grant money given to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Some of these funds are being distributed to Glover’s facility for improvements in its features for people with visual, hearing and physical disabilities. A roll-in shower, new ramp and videophones are just some of the new features updating the shelter to become more accessible.

“The majority of shelters are minimally accessible — they will have a ramp to the door,” says Debora Beck-Massey, resource outreach coordinator for the Domestic Violence Initiative for Women with Disabilities in Denver at the time this story was published. “The majority are not accessible attitudinally once the women get in the door. I’ve had women refused entrance into shelters because they need attendant care, or the staff is uninformed about what people with disabilities can do, or because she’s on a drug cocktail —10 to 15 meds.”

Beck-Massey, who has MS, says attendants could be provided through a contract with a local home health agency that signs a strict confidentiality clause. Also drugs can be kept in a cheap, Wal-Mart safe and the woman can keep a key. Whatever the obstacle that keeps a woman out of a shelter and in danger, Beck-Massey can provide a solution. “You’ll get this, ‘Wow, we didn’t think about that,'” she says.

I ask Glover how she handles attendant care. “We let them bring whoever they need into the shelter,” she says. The shelter I’m touring is a bunker and I’ve been sworn to never reveal the address, but attendants throughout the county know where it is, which seems contradictory. “Look at it this way,” says Glover. “Most of the women come here by cab. So if a woman can get a cab here, she can bring her personal assistant here. There’s risk, but we try to minimize the risk. If he finds out where she is, we’re on the lookout for an abuser, and the police are very good at getting here very quickly.”

“Our job is about the safety of the victim, that is our first concern,” adds Robinson. “We need to get her in here and then we’ll deal with all the rest.”

But She Can’t Make Her Bed
“Whether your local shelter is accessible really depends on what county you live in and what state,” says Bev Frantz, criminal justice and sexuality program coordinator at Temple University’s Institute on Disabilities. Frantz helped design the nation’s first accessibility study of domestic violence service programs. Being physically maneuverable is only one aspect of accessibility in shelters.  The programs and staff attitudes must also be fully accessible. Like Beck-Massey, Frantz says staff attitudes are sometimes a greater barrier than a door with steps. For example, everyone in a shelter is expected to chip in with chores. Frantz once took a call from a staffer saying a wheelchair user couldn’t make her bed and the other women were complaining. “If she can’t make the bed at all, then find something else she can do that’s comparable to making the bed,” Frantz told the staffer. Abused women bond in shelters and part of that bonding is done through chores, so as petty as this situation seems, it was experienced as a crisis by the women involved.

“When a woman with physical disability comes to a shelter, the staff needs to discuss their expectations and ask the woman, ‘What do you need to be successful in this program?’” Frantz says. It then allows the woman to express her own needs and to put some of the ownership and direction into her hands.

And then there’s the perennially disturbing reality that many nondisabled people still don’t believe disabled women have sexual relationships. “Lover, boyfriend, husband all have a sexual component to it. If the staff sees her as somebody who is asexual and therefore not in a ‘real’ relationship, then they might not think she’s really battered,” says Frantz. “State and fed monies mandate all shelters to be accessible. Even with the ADA, 20-plus years, why aren’t they? There’s an intellectual principle that wheelchair users are like everybody else, and then there’s the practice, how biases get internalized,” says Frantz. These internal biases keep full access shunted over to the side.

Even if a shelter is 100 percent accessible in every way, women with physical disabilities still don’t have a clean shot at claiming a safe bed. “Shelters cannot keep that accessible bedroom empty. If you happen to call and need that room, they can’t just kick that nondisabled woman out, so you may not even get into it,” says Beck-Massey. “You increase that unavailability at least by 10 for physically disabled people,” she says.

Safety Plan
Escaping an abuser begins long before most women cross a shelter’s threshold, and the number-one tool is what domestic violence workers call a “safety plan.” The plan is different for every woman and every situation, and is usually a series of if-then scenarios. For example, if the abuser corners the woman at church, then she sticks close to the clued-in and supportive pastor. Or if she thinks her abuser’s in a beating mood, she grabs the kids and escapes to a trusted friend’s house.

“We ask her, ‘Are you going to the doctor? Tell him to please call the police.’ Or, we tell her to avoid certain rooms, like the kitchen where there are knives,” says Robinson. “You don’t want to be in the bathroom, you want space.”

A safety plan doesn’t always include leaving the abuser because most women need to work up to that. “The woman must be in control of her own plan,” says Glover. “And we tell her, ‘You pick your own time. You can pick this.’ When we work with her, we take any physical limitations she has into account, and that becomes part of the plan.”

When asked if abusers can change with treatment, Robinson scoffs. “Jail time is the only thing that works,” she says. “If you’re a stranger and you beat a woman, you go to jail. If you’re a partner, you don’t go to jail?” Robinson once helped run a group for abusers who were court-ordered to attend, and she ran a movie of a couple dealing with conflict without hitting each other. “I couldn’t believe the men — they were pointing out all things in the movie that the woman had done wrong,” she says.

The choice for an abused woman is grim — stay and be abused, possibly killed, or go and leave behind the only life she may know. She may hope the abuser will change, but she has a better chance at winning the lottery. “Women leave their batterers seven times before they leave for good,” says Frantz. “But some women with disabilities can’t leave seven times.” But for those who choose to leave, shelters are a possible path to a new, violence-free life.

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