A woman is in crisis. She needs a place to go. In the Robson Valley, women seeking refuge from domestic violence are welcomed into residents’ homes – these homes are known as safe shelters. But in Valemount, few shelters exist. The Goat sat down with Shelly Battensby of the Robson Valley Support Society to discuss some of the preconceptions and myths around being a safe shelter.

Do I have to counsel the person?
No. Empathy and active listening don’t mean counselling. They mean listening to a woman’s story without judgement.

What’s the time commitment?
The maximum time a woman would stay in shelter is 10 days. Typically 1-3.

How will this interrupt my normal routine?
Sometimes we call in the middle of the day and sometimes we call in the middle of the night. Shelters always have the option of being available or not available. Life happens. Auntie Anne shows up unexpectedly for a week visit or you just got the call your first grandchild is being born out of town. We don’t expect people to put their lives on hold for this.

What would a typical day look like?

It depends on the woman and her needs. Being a safe shelter is about providing her with a healthy home environment, with access to meals, laundry and normal day-to-day activities. While there’s an extra plate at the table, there’s very little you have to do for her. The safe shelter coordinator may pop by the house to see the woman, as she may need to attend appointments. Together they’ll be looking at her options, making decisions around her safety and her plans. There is no expectation of the volunteer homes to provide accompaniment or transportation. If the shelter operator is comfortable leaving her alone in the home and going to work and safety isn’t an issue, then that’s ok. If they’re not ok with her being alone, then the safe shelter coordinator would take steps to address that.

Would there ever be a situation when the shelter operator can’t go to work or take care of their own personal business?

No. We’ve never had that scenario. That’s where the safe shelter coordinator is involved to be with the woman and ensure her safety. We really try to make a good fit between the woman seeking shelter and the shelter accessed. Woman seeking shelter are very respectful of the fact they are in somebody else home. We have house rules in place and expectations of what their participation in a private home will look like. An example would be child-minding. We ask the woman to not expect the shelter to act as a babysitting service. We do it in a way that empowers her with her parenting. Another example is substance use. We often find that women have many strategies of coping. We ask that in order to make as best decisions as possible in a time of crisis, that she abstain from substance use while in the shelter.

What are the safety risks?

We do risk assessment with every woman who accesses the shelter – whether she’s staying a few hours or a few days. Where there are high safety risks, we aren’t going to be putting her in a local shelter. It’s too risky for her, for her children if there are children, and for everybody involved. We have a regional and provincial network of safe homes and transition houses that we would access. Any pertinent safety information is shared with the shelter operators and the RCMP are also informed what the safety risks would be.

There’s men in the house, is that a problem?
Absolutely not. There are positive male role models everywhere and having that man part of the shelter system models what a healthy relationship can look like. Chances are she’s only afraid of the guy who hurts her.

What happens after the woman leaves my house? Can I keep in contact?

We leave it up to the woman. Because it is a small community and you will to run into her, we always ask her what she’s comfortable with and what’s safe for her. Would she like us to acknowledge her or pretend we’ve never met? Regardless, we never let on that we know her through the program.

What if someone finds out we’re a shelter?
Anonymity is wonderful but in a small town, it’s not always realistic. What we’ve found over the last 20 years of this program is that the few times a shelter has been learned of the people who have learned about it aren’t the type to talk about it. Most everyone respects the nature of what the shelter is doing.

What makes an ideal shelter?

Empathy, active listening, understanding of domestic violence without judgment. Having a place within the shelters physical space where a woman with or without children can stay and have some privacy.

What if I have kids?
The school is already made aware of the situation, but we include the whole family in the conversation about why this woman is staying the home. We talk about the safety issues for her. Where the safe shelter does have children they’re a part of that. They’re included at an age appropriate level where they can understand what’s happening. Kids love to help out and this can be a positive experience for them.

Why are these shelters important?
Violence against women is on the rise. It used to be one in four women, and now one in three women who will experience violence in a relationship in their lifetime. We all have women in our lives and unfortunately there are those that are being hurt by someone who says they love them. The impacts on families, society, the health care system, the school system – you name it – are astounding.

For the shelter operator, it can be a very rewarding experience to help someone who just needs a little support and understanding. As Gandhi said – be the change you want to see.

I’d like to learn more. How can I do so?
The community of Valemount is in need of shelters right now. Anyone looking for information can contact myself, Shelly Battensby at 250-566-9107 or Elizabeth De Vries in the McBride office at 250-569-2226. The more shelters there are, the lesser the burden on each shelter.