How Do Domestic Violence Shelters Work?

Caring mother hugging her small child in the underground shelter

What can someone expect when entering a domestic violence shelter? Taking the first step in recovery can be difficult, but these shelters offer a stepping stone for survivors.

Seeking Out a Domestic Violence Shelter

Did you know that an estimated 10 million Americans are impacted by domestic violence every year? This adds up to about one in four women and one in nine men—statistics that paint a very sobering picture of the reality of domestic violence.

Thankfully, health- and human-service organizations across the country dedicate their work to helping these survivors of domestic violence. Programs like Safe Horizon coordinate resources, offer counseling, and connect individuals to shelters.

So what can individuals expect when seeking out help from a domestic violence shelter? The idea can be intimidating—especially for people currently in a violent living situation—but these shelters are designed to be as helpful and approachable as possible.

What to Expect at a Shelter

For someone experiencing domestic violence, it may seem daunting to reach out to a domestic violence shelter. What can you expect will happen? What information do you need to provide, and how safe will you be from your abuser? Keep reading to better understand what someone can expect when receiving care from a domestic violence shelter, particularly in terms of:

  • Entry/intake
  • Living situation
  • Staff and support
  • Length of stay


When someone is ready to reach out to a domestic violence shelter, the first step is often the hardest. Where do you even start? 

For safety reasons, the majority of domestic violence shelters do not have their locations listed. This is to prevent abusers from finding the survivors and potentially harassing them. While this feature is absolutely critical to the integrity of domestic violence shelters, it does mean that individuals usually can’t find an address and show up at a shelter unannounced.

Instead, getting connected with a shelter means first reaching out by phone or message or through referral. There are many websites available to help in locating a nearby shelter, with several encrypted to help disguise search history from abusers.

After reaching out, survivors are paired with a social worker or case manager. Their role is to walk the individual through an intake assessment, inform them about available resources, and coordinate transport to the shelter. This is one of the most important parts of the intake process: from this moment forward, each survivor has an advocate whose sole job is to help them navigate recovery.

Living Situation

What can individuals expect the living situation in domestic violence shelters to be like?

The reality is that each shelter will have somewhat different arrangements, rules, and resources. As such, no living two shelters have the exact same living situation. Instead, each will vary in size and capacity.

Despite the unique aspects of each shelter, there are some commonalities that most shelters share. Individuals seeking help from these shelters should expect:

  • Confidentiality and a safe, private location
  • No fees or costs
  • Gender-specific arrangements
  • Shared common spaces, such as kitchen, bathroom, and sitting areas
  • An individual bed, either in a private or shared bedroom
  • Clean linens and towels
  • Food, clothing, and toiletries
  • Options to bring children along
  • Laundry facilities

Depending on the shelter, they may also provide internet or computer access, help with child care, or even the ability to bring pets with. This is not true for all shelters, however.

Staff and Support

During an individual’s stay at a domestic violence shelter, case managers will check in regularly (usually daily) with each survivor. They may offer counseling, workshops, or other resources.

Importantly, shelters understand that daily life must continue for the majority of those they serve. When staying at a domestic violence shelter, individuals are allowed to leave whenever they need, such as for work or to take their children to and from school. Visitors are typically not allowed at shelters, so most people meet their friends and family at nearby locations (such as a coffee shop or park). 

Some shelters have curfews, but most are willing to work with individuals on a case-by-case basis, which again highlights the value of a case manager.

Integral to the support system of shelters is ensuring the safety of survivors. To do so, most shelters provide secure transportation to and from work, and police typically closely monitor the areas these shelters are in. 

Length of Stay

Domestic violence shelters function as an interim between fleeing an unsafe situation and establishing a safer living arrangement.

As they are designed to take in people the moment they need to, shelters typically do not allow long-term stays. Most shelters are designed to house survivors for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. It is unusual to find a shelter that provides individual care for more than six weeks or so. 

Instead, these shelters work with community-care leaders to help find more permanent housing for those who need it. The social workers at these shelters work closely with community programs to meet as many needs as they can. As such, people attending domestic violence shelters can expect assistance in finding affordable, long-term housing.

Who Pays For It All, Anyway?

Since shelters typically serve people in distressing and difficult situations, they ensure that the financial burden does not fall on survivors. Instead, those fleeing domestic violence can focus on healing and moving forward rather than fretting about a potential financial barrier.

Even still, shelters cannot run without funding. 

According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), most funding for domestic violence shelters comes through federal and state government allocations. This financial assistance is made available in large part because of three major legislative efforts:

  • The Violence Against Women Act
  • The Family Violence Prevention and Services Act
  • The Victims of Crime Act

In addition to governmental assistance, domestic shelters also receive financial aid through community fundraisers, private donors, and collaboration with other social services. This spreadsheet here gives an in-depth look at exactly where domestic violence funding within each state comes from. Clearly, it takes a lot of effort, coordination, and time to make this essential social service available to those who need it.

A Continuum of Care

Domestic violence shelters are an essential and critical aspect of community care. When they are able to coordinate resources and services through a continuum of care, these shelters can do what they do best: help survivors establish the safe and supportive home they deserve.

Social-service organizations around the United States are tapping into the benefits of community care coordination through case management platforms like ClientTrack™. To learn more about the services ClientTrack provides, reach out today. Our team of industry experts will be happy to assist. 

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