Safe Passage of Northampton closes emergency shelter, others may follow

As housing remains difficult to come by across the state, Safe Passage of Northampton announced that it has closed its 45-year-old emergency shelter program for survivors of domestic violence — a program that if it were to continue for the next five years, could have potentially cost upwards of $900,000 in projected costs.

Since the announcement, Marianne Winters, executive director of Safe Passage of Northampton, said she has heard from other housing organizations that they are facing similar difficulties. Some of those organizations told her that they might follow suit.

Although the emergency shelter is closed, Winters said Safe Passage will continue to help domestic violence survivors in high-risk situations. Instead of providing temporary housing, the organization will be creating a housing advocacy and economic empowerment program to add to its comprehensive approach of resources for survivors.

Safe Passage will also be working with local officials to push for more affordable housing and will be focusing on developing relationships with landlords to try to help survivors find housing.

“We still have landlords who you know, who assume that someone who’s a victim of domestic violence will bring some safety issues,” Winters said. “We need to break down that stigma and uphold the anti-discrimination rules that are in place.”

Although the closure of the shelter program will cause the organization to lose state contract funding, they are planning on applying for new state and federal grants.

Beyond the financial burden the program placed on Safe Passage, Winters said the emergency shelter was not living up to its purpose of providing immediate shelter on an ongoing basis to survivors.

“I think there’s also a big misconception that if you’re a survivor of domestic violence, and you need to escape, that shelter really is the only option,” Winters said.

Safe Passage has found that running an emergency shelter doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the best path toward helping survivors gain economic and housing stability.

Instead of individuals staying for a couple of months at the six-room congregate shelter, survivors were living there for sometimes more than two years. Anytime the shelter had a room available, the organization received about six calls in less than an hour to fill the space.

YWCA has faced similar issues in their Clough Street-based Springfield residential program — some residents have stayed for more than three years instead of the expected two-year stay.

Domestic violence survivors face more obstacles to housing and economic safety than other populations, according to Winters, such as dealing with identity fraud and stigma from landlords who assume safety issues might follow if the survivor were to live there.

Winters said that since she joined the organization, about 12 years ago, the number of people helped in the emergency shelter has dwindled from about 86 people a year to a maximum of 20 people per year.

Safe Passage has helped all but one of the six families living in the shelter find housing. The last family is currently in a hotel supported by Safe Passage and working with the organization to find housing.

Debra Robbin, executive director of partner organization Jane Doe Inc. the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, said Safe Passage of Northampton’s decision “ultimately reflects their commitment to better aligning the needs of survivors in Hampshire County with inclusive approaches that support safety, economic stability, and more.”

State officials were also in support of Safe Passage’s decision, including State Sen. Jo Comerford and State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa.

“This signals to all of us about the responsibility for the state to do better to improve and expand the affordable housing opportunities available to all,” Comerford said.

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