Shelter Rules and Structure

As we analyze conflict resolution, it is important to acknowledge that many advocates are working within an established system, structure, and agency culture that they did not participate in creating and may have limited power to change. Shelter advocates themselves may feel that the lines between structures and rules designed originally to be protective and those that are unnecessarily restrictive have become blurred. Fortunately, an increasing number of domestic violence programs have initiated internal critiques of their shelter rules and structures, examining the extent to which they compromise rather than support the empowerment of residents and designing alternative approaches.

At the same time, it should be no surprise that some victims embrace structures that others experience as overly strict and even punitive. Shelter "rules" might actually represent a very familiar standard to some women, one that they lived daily during an abusive childhood or with their adult abuser, and one that they know how to negotiate. For others, however, an overly structured shelter environment resonates in ways that produce anger, resistance, and even defiance. If residents have no outlet to express these feelings, or are afraid to raise concerns with staff who have the power to ask them to leave, they may take their anger out on other shelter residents. In many instances, then, a punitive or restrictive shelter environment may reinforce the power and control dynamics that advocates are trying to help women escape.

As the earlier chart described, shelter residents participating in the Shelter Study raised particular areas of concern about a number of aspects of shelter life, most of which could result in conflict with staff or other residents, and which were resolved less frequently: "Problems with shelter rules included issues with time limits (16%), curfew (14%), child discipline and monitoring (13%), and chores (13%)." The Shelter Study report continued:

  • Residents felt time limits were too short, inflexible, or not explained clearly with appropriate notice. Many noted the time limits didn't take into consideration that finding other living arrangements was difficult. As one wrote, "Not my fault apartments were full or I couldn't afford them." Another observed that "they need to realize that some people have nowhere to go at all." Some felt the time limits forced them to go back to the abuser: "I was here for 90 days then ended up back in my abusive relationship because I had nowhere to go." One also noted she felt ‘overwhelmed and anxiety worrying about it." Fifty percent of these problems were resolved.

  • Curfew issues included conflicts with work and church. One noted that it "was embarrassing to leave church [because of curfew]." Another stated, "Evening service, church functions, visits with daughter all ‘no.'" Some felt the curfew was too early: "We are grown women, 8:00 is ridiculous;" or that there was unequal enforcement: "They said no curfew but one woman and kids were kicked out when [they] came home at 9:05 pm." Others believed that curfew should be flexible. "Unbending, mothers and children should be able to spend time together on Christmas." Some thought curfew should be extended on weekends. Still others noted that it was annoying but understandable for safety. Sixty-one percent of these problems were resolved (Lyon et al., 2008, p. 86).

As reported in the Shelter Study, other disagreements related to thefts, use of drugs, and the different degrees to which residents followed the rules. One respondent commented, "Some think rules don't apply to them." Another wrote, "Some problems were uncalled for and were only occurring because there was not strong rule following for this person (as far as respecting other people in the shelter) she did not respect me at all " (Lyon et al., 2008, p. 84).

When in crisis mode, many victims may do things they would not typically do to meet the needs of their family. A punitive environment within the shelter has the ability to exacerbate a sense of desperation among residents related to availability and use of resources, as well as competing or conflicting needs for advocacy. If bus passes, food, baby care items, personal hygiene items, and financial assistance are difficult to obtain because of house rules and agency restrictions – real or perceived – theft and related conflict may occur between residents.

Shelter staff can provide guidelines for resolving conflicts that arise in these areas of interpersonal relationships, but should also let residents work within their own problem solving skills and ability to negotiate between themselves to address most problems. All victims have had to utilize a variety of skills in compromise and negotiation to manage previous living situations. Past resourcefulness and creativity in resolving conflicts and diffusing potentially volatile situations can be put to good use within the shelter environment.