Four years ago a pipe burst on the third floor of Tacoma’s YWCA Pierce County domestic violence shelter, drenching the building top to bottom. Built as a Y in 1928, the structure was converted to a shelter in 1976, meant to house individual women for a few nights. It was never intended to house whole families for three months. The decrepit sewer system servicing a shared kitchen and shared baths finally gave way.

As had, frankly, the rationale behind shared kitchens and shared baths. Shelters for battered women and children have been around since batterers have: originally in the form of whispered ad hoc networks of women helping women, then in the late ’70s as publicly funded shelters whose overarching priority was secrecy. Batterers stalk, so the earliest shelters were only as effective as the secrecy of their locales. Less attention was given to the privacy or dignity of their traumatized residents. 

Take regular parenting routines, a bulwark of a child’s sense of safety. How does a mother establish a calming bedtime routine for a child in a shelter with 10 children and one bathtub? Academic achievement promotes the resilience kids need to recover from trauma, but how do you encourage that with no quiet place to do homework? Survivors of sexual abuse feel particularly vulnerable at night, so how can they feel safe in shared bedrooms? 

Margaret Hobart, in her work as children’s advocate for the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, found herself so seized by these questions she embarked on a statewide search for solutions. She distributed cameras to the women and children in the shelters her coalition represents, and asked them to shoot what they liked and didn’t like about their temporary homes. First and foremost, grateful for the physical safety the shelters provide, the survivors took lots and lots of pictures of the security systems and the card keys.

One shelter offered a quiet secondary living room with pastoral art, comfortable chairs, and no TV. Everybody took a picture of that room: Little kids wanted their moms to read to them in that room, teens wanted to do their homework there, moms sought quiet there. This perplexed Hobart. Domestic violence shelters in Washington already turn away nine for every one they serve, amid demand that is soaring nationwide as a grim symptom, it is speculated, of the wrecked economy. 

“We need as much bed space as we can get,” she reasoned, but adds, “people need a lot more than just to get away from their abuser.” Before its plumbing exploded, about one out of three of the YWCA Pierce County shelter residents would take off before her time was up. “Communal living is really hard,” sighs deputy director Karin Tautfest. “Given the crazy-crowded conditions with more than 20 other families—it was often just easier to go home. Of course, after a while we’d see them back again.”

The “don’t like” pictures predictably documented the chaos of those crazy-crowded conditions: the rollaway beds, the piles of clutter, the rules. “For most of us it’s challenging just to live with a partner,” Hobart notes. “Put a number of people together in a space built for one nuclear family, and you have the stress that comes from noise, crowds, diffusion of responsibility.”

Someone leaves dirty dishes, someone mistakenly drinks someone else’s milk. In response the staff makes rules, lots of them, often based on a single incident from long ago, like ‘Don’t apply nail polish at the dining room table.’ “The more you give adults a giant list of rules, the less empowered they feel,” observes Hobart. “It’s an assault on dignity. It undermines a mother’s authority in her child’s eyes. It helps no one.”

Well it’s not a bed and breakfast, Hobart would hear. How accommodating does a shelter need to be? At least accommodating enough, she declared, to revive the thing abusers uniquely beat out of the human soul: a sense of autonomy.

Could a building’s design inspire that? the Pierce County Y leaders wondered. Last year, they opened their answer. Public money, a successful fundraising campaign—within the clenched fist of the recession—and a fleet of interior designers who donated their services resulted in a new shelter with 22 private apartments, each with its own kitchen, bath, and unique decor. 

Some of the Y’s design elements, along with other ideas Hobart gleaned from her statewide photo collection campaign, are highlighted on a new website, Building Dignity, which Mahlum Architects built pro bono in collaboration with Hobart and the WSCADV. It shows how designers turned old Murphy bed insets into cozy nooks for sleeping, designed to cradle kids in a secure embrace. Some rooms feature inspirational murals on the walls. Some are painted in soft, serene pastels—a revelation against the old institutional dirt-masking darks. A metal artist turned requisite window bars into art: bright orange security grates in the shape of reeds, birds, and flowers. 

The day last year that the residents moved from their worn and tiny rooms into their fresh new apartments was…well, the Y’s deputy director can’t talk about it without getting emotional. “They were hugging, crying, jumping up and down,” recalls Tautfest. “This is…for me?” they’d say. “My own bathroom?”

Since then, Tautfest and Hobart have learned a few things. Tautfest’s shelter manager now fields about a sixth of the emails she once did, now that she’s not constantly adjudicating the petty frictions of communal living, leaving her more time to spend on advocacy and support for families. There’s no data yet to back it up, but Hobart maintains that this is one of several tangible ways the private-apartment model can actually save resources. 

What she knows for sure is that the private-apartment model being pioneered in Washington is at the forefront of a new conventional wisdom on the healing power of aesthetics for survivors of domestic violence. Hobart will never forget the survivor who told her, “All that beautifulness…it just does something to you.” It salves a survivor’s most critical injury, which is never the bruises. It’s the belief that she’s not worth anything.

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