Two weeks ago, with support and guidance from a task force of community leaders, the YWCA-Bellingham transferred the operation of Womencare Shelter, an emergency domestic violence housing program, to Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County.
We believe that merging domestic violence shelter services with Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County's community-based support services for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault will greatly benefit our community.
Victims of domestic violence will have more accessible, streamlined and coordinated services available to them: there will be one 24-hour helpline, which will provide crisis intervention as well as intakes to the emergency shelter; and there will be one drop-in location in downtown Bellingham for victims who don't need housing but do need advocacy, support groups and other services.
There will be less confusion for community members who want to get involved in services for victims of domestic violence - if you want to volunteer time with, donate to and/or work for a domestic violence service agency, then you can contact Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County to be connected with options for the type of support you want to provide.
Finally, there will be increased financial efficiency with the elimination of duplication in administration and overhead, such as having two separate management structures, 24-hour hotlines and drop-in centers. This means that more funds can be dedicated to the provision of advocacy services for victims of domestic violence.
These advantages are noteworthy because in our community, and nationwide, emergency housing is the most basic and central service to provide safety, support, education and healing for victims of domestic violence and their children.
Prior to the 1970s in the United States, domestic violence was not a crime and was generally considered a "family matter." Then the women's movement brought domestic violence to public consciousness and motivated the creation of battered women's shelters throughout the country. These shelters were often spearheaded, developed and managed by volunteers. The volunteers themselves were many times either current or former victims of domestic violence. Shelters were literally a lifeline for victims - when no one else could keep victims safe, they could go to the shelter to seek help.
In the intervening decades, shelters have expanded from providing solely housing to including a myriad of services and programs, including 24-hour crisis lines, advocacy, support groups, community education and professional training.
In Whatcom County, Womencare Shelter was launched in 1979 and over the years has provided essential services in the community - confidential emergency housing, 24-hour advocacy services including a crisis helpline and community education. Over the past 10 years, Womencare Shelter provided safe, confidential emergency housing for an average of 132 women and 122 children each year.
On Oct. 1, 2013, Womencare Shelter became a program of the YWCA-Bellingham to save money through sharing management structures, finance systems, office space and costs for insurance.
The recent decision by a task force made up of leaders from the community - including representatives from the Opportunity Council, Whatcom County, Lydia Place, the City of Bellingham and Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County - was done in partnership with YWCA-Bellingham leadership. The YWCA is evaluating its programs and operations. The goal was to ensure the continuation of all essential services to the community while minimizing duplicative administrative costs.
We believe moving these emergency housing services to Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County will help accomplish the YWCA's goals, while providing more comprehensive services for our community by having the full continuum of vital domestic violence support services provided by one local agency.
As with any major transition, the change will not be easy for everyone. The history of Womencare Shelter, an organization that has been a vital part of the local domestic violence movement, has ended; the name of Womencare Shelter will no longer be used; and all Womencare Shelter staff members were laid off as part of the transition.
Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County is a 35-year-old organization with staff experienced in the operation and management of non-profit services to help people who are affected by domestic violence or sexual assault.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, you can contact Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services at 360-715-1563 or Lummi Victims of Crime at 360-312-2015.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Susan Marks is the director and Sheri Emerson is past chair of the Bellingham-Whatcom County Commission Against Domestic Violence.