Seeking Shelter: What to Expect, How to Share Your Story, and What to Do If You Are Denied Assistance

By Eleanor, a Hotline Advocate

Read Seeking Shelter: Part One here

Here at The Hotline we often hear from survivors who are overwhelmed by the idea of reaching out to a shelter for support. If you are struggling to take the next step, know that you are not alone. The process of seeking shelter can be daunting, especially if you reached out for assistance in the past and were turned away.

If you are feeling anxious about contacting a shelter, it can be helpful to learn more about the intake process. Sometimes knowing ahead of time what information shelter staff will need to know about your situation can help you mentally prepare for the experience, and make your interaction more positive.

What to Expect When You Contact a Shelter

Every shelter has their own unique policies and procedures, so you can’t know for sure exactly how things will go when you reach out. However, there are some common questions that you can probably expect to be asked. Knowing these questions and their purpose in advance can help you prepare, as well as ensure you will provide information that will best help shelter staff meet your needs.

When you contact a shelter, you can expect the person who answers your call to start the conversation by asking if you are in a safe place to talk. This question can be frustrating for some—obviously you’re not safe, you wouldn’t be calling a domestic violence shelter if you were. When staff ask this question, they are hoping to ensure that you’re not in any immediate physical danger and that you have privacy to talk, away from anyone who might become angry or upset if they knew you were talking to a domestic violence shelter. Once your immediate physical safety is confirmed, they may begin a lethality assessment. A lethality assessment is a set of questions designed to identify victims who are at risk of homicide or serious injury by their romantic partner. While being asked to share details with a stranger about the most severe abuse you are experiencing can feel invasive, shelters will often prioritize space based on these responses, so it’s important to be as honest as you can be.

In addition to a lethality assessment, you can expect to be asked:

  • The current whereabouts of your abusive partner
  • Whether they have access to guns and/or other weapons
  • Whether you will be bringing children
  • If you live with your abuser
  • If police were involved during your most recent abusive incident
  • What medications are currently prescribed to you
  • Whether you have any pets who will need shelter
  • If you will need any accommodations for a disability
  • If there is a protection order in place against your abuser

This list is certainly not exhaustive, and it is possible you may be asked other details of your story that we have not included here.

Sharing Your Story Effectively

If you anticipate that you will have difficulties communicating what is happening to intake, it can be helpful to write your story down prior to contacting a shelter. Please consider your safety prior to writing anything down on paper that your abuser can see. If you need help figuring out how to safely journal or document your abuse, feel free to reach out to one of our Advocates for assistance.

Formulating your thoughts by writing them down on paper can be a helpful way to process what you are experiencing (or have experienced) from your abuser. If you don’t know where to begin, try starting by answering the questions to the lethality assessment discussed above. This can be particularly beneficial for victims and survivors of trauma, because they may struggle to remember specific details of their abuse.

It can also be helpful to read from these answers when you decide to call. While it is so understandable for answering these questions to trigger strong emotions, doing your best to maintain composure can reduce the likelihood of being perceived as a combative caller or having your situation dismissed. If possible, try to lead with statements that begin in the first person (“I”-focused language) about how your partner’s behavior makes you feel and why you are concerned for your safety.

If you find yourself beginning to raise your voice or realize that you are becoming overwhelmed or upset, you can always take a moment to ground yourself or ask if you can call back later. Additionally, if you have the emotional space, you can try to educate the person with whom you are speaking at the shelter about why you are raising your voice (i.e. telling your story is an emotionally triggering experience for you, you’re having flashbacks associated with describing the abuse in detail, etc.).

While the majority of shelter staff go through training on intimate partner violence, unfortunately not all domestic violence professionals may be familiar with trauma-informed advocacy or LGBTQ abuse dynamics, or understand that men can be victims of abuse too. The Hotline recognizes that it’s not the victim’s responsibility to educate shelter staff about best practices or that abuse can happen to anyone. However, doing so in a respectful manner may be worth considering, especially if you live in an area that has not adopted these attitudes or received training around them. If you ever feel like your local shelter is being discriminatory or disrespectful, you also always have the option to contact your state coalition for assistance.

When Space is Unavailable or You Are Denied Assistance

Being denied shelter space can be devastating, and it can seem like you are out of options. However, if you are denied due to capacity or as a result of your gender and/or sexual orientation, you might try asking the shelter if they offer hotel vouchers. This is a service that some shelters are able to provide, but may only do so upon request. Another option would be to ask the shelter if they are aware of others in the area that might have availability, or if there is a central “bed line” in your area that collects up-to-date information about which shelters have openings. Additionally, it can be helpful to keep a clear log of what shelters you have contacted and the requirements to stay on that particular shelter’s waitlist so you can keep track. This can also help our Advocates look for alternatives to places you’ve already tried, if you’re able to safely reach out to us.  Again, please consider your safety prior to writing anything down on paper that your abuser can see.

Still feeling nervous about reaching out, or concerned that your local shelter may not believe your situation? Our Advocates are here for you 24/7/365 by phone and online chat to discuss your concerns and brainstorm solutions. If you reach out by phone, we may be able to offer direct connect services to your local shelter, where we can transfer your call, briefly introduce what is happening in your relationship, and explain why you are needing support today. Sometimes hearing the National Domestic Violence Hotline introduce your situation can help establish rapport with shelter staff more quickly, provide legitimacy to your situation, and take some of the emotional burden off your shoulders.


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