Good Samaritans Open Their Homes As Safe Houses

A victim of domestic violence, who calls herself, "Sierra"  is seen at a safe house in Nevada County, Calif. i i

In this photo taken Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2010, a victim of domestic violence who calls herself "Sierra"  is seen at a safe house in Nevada County, Calif. The Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Coalition has been forced to rely on the generosity of area residents to provide shelter for those escaping abuse after it had to close the shelter it operated in response to California's budget crisis. The shelter, which provided beds for 12, at a cost of $60,000 a year, was closed June 30, when it lost state funding. Rich Pedroncelli/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Rich Pedroncelli/AP
A victim of domestic violence, who calls herself, "Sierra"  is seen at a safe house in Nevada County, Calif.

In this photo taken Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2010, a victim of domestic violence who calls herself "Sierra"  is seen at a safe house in Nevada County, Calif. The Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Coalition has been forced to rely on the generosity of area residents to provide shelter for those escaping abuse after it had to close the shelter it operated in response to California's budget crisis. The shelter, which provided beds for 12, at a cost of $60,000 a year, was closed June 30, when it lost state funding.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP

When someone decides to leave an abusive home, their immediate needs are shelter and safety. Three out of four domestic violence murders occur when a battered woman picks up a bag and leaves.

"It's a critically dangerous time," says Niko Johnson, who runs the only domestic violence crisis center in Grass Valley, Calif., a farming town in the Sierra foothills outside Sacramento.

The center takes calls day and night, responding at a moment's notice to usher a woman — and often her children — to a safe place.

"They know when that moment comes, when they truly feel they can take that step out, that we're going to catch them and we're going to help them get safe," Johnson says.

But with the state budget crisis, Johnson's group had to give up the lease on their shelter — a 12-bed residential shelter and what Johnson calls "a beautiful home." It closed in June, and the closest shelters are an hour away, in different school districts or over a snowy mountain pass.

And so Johnson turned to a method not used in Grass Valley since the 1970s: she asked good Samaritans to open their homes, creating a type of underground railroad for those in need.

No Crisis Training, No Security

Since the shelter closed, a handful of "safe houses" have opened in the area. One sits at the end of a long gravel road, surrounded by pear and apple orchards. Like the others, the homeowner has no real crisis training and receives no payment. It's risky — unlike a shelter, there's no high-end security system or full-time staff. Their only protection is that their location is a secret, and so Johnson asked NPR not to reveal anyone's names.

In the kitchen, different colored ribbons mark each person's cupboard. The rooms are decorated with purple bedspreads and soft reading lamps. The homeowner is a calm, deeply religious woman, and says she feels compelled to help women in crisis.

"The first few days, we probably don't communicate very much at all," she says. "They kind of hide out in their room. They do a lot of resting and sleeping and then they come out. And then we just start chattering like women will."

The host makes it clear that she's not a trained counselor. Her guests who need support are told to call the local domestic violence hotline. She's also aware of how dangerous what she's doing really is since 911 is her only backup.

Right now, there's only one guest here, a sturdy woman with graying hair. I've been told not to ask what happened to her, but she does say her abuser has been trying to find her.

"Sometimes, I hear cars coming up the driveway, I still have that instinct to run to see if they followed me or they're tracking me down," the woman says.

She tells me she'd feel a lot safer at a shelter that had tighter security and trained staff. But the quiet helps her think.

"There's just no stress here," she says. "And it's nice to have that after living a life for 10 years for somebody who likes the stress, likes the chaos. It's a change, it's a little hard to get used to, but I like it."

Not A Perfect Situation

The neighborly gesture is valiant, but it's also dangerous, according to domestic violence experts.

Sue Else, the president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, says private citizens aren't equipped to handle a violent spouse bent on retaliation.

Johnson agrees it's not a perfect solution. She knows some women may hesitate leaving their abusers without the reassuring fortress of a shelter. But Johnson says she has no other choice, and it's not her fault California is broke.

"It's the best we can do right now with what we have, the resources that we have," she says. "It's not ideal in any stretch of the imagination."

And she knows the risks to the homeowners, and to the agency which has increased its liability insurance.

"The folks that are taking these people in, we have talked extensively about public safety," Johnson says. "And quite frankly, those at the highest risk, we don't place in someone's home."

Well aware of those dangers, the California legislature recently restored some funding for the shelters. It's another dodged bullet for those already in harm's way. Johnson says it will take a few months, but her group will set up a new shelter. The safe houses, though, will stay for now. Johnson worries the emergency funding may not last.

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