By Krystin Gollihue
In 1978, a group of concerned citizens in Arlington, Virginia saw a need for a safe place in their community for people in crisis. They opened a shelter for victims of domestic violence and homelessness, a small house that provided a night of escape. It was an emergency response, a place for a survivor to regroup, even for just one night.
Almost 40 years later, Doorways for Women and Families has grown to understand that those in crisis need more than just one night of shelter or one type of response. According to Linley Beckbridge, Communications and Outreach Manager at Doorways, as the organization served more and more survivors of domestic abuse, sexual violence, and homelessness, “The pathway out of crisis to a stable, safe, and empowered life took on greater and greater meaning, that there are many pathways, that some people need more to address these issues that exist around them.”
Today, Doorways operates an 11-bed safehouse and kennel for survivors and their pets, the 21-bed Freddie Mac Foundation Family Home for families escaping homelessness, a scattered site shelter for survivors with unique needs, and a supportive housing program that places clients in long-term housing, all of which are confidential services. This multi-tiered approach was what drew Beckbridge to the organization in the first place: “Providing just the emergency response doesn’t solve the overall societal problem, nor does it create opportunities for long-term safety and stability.”
That societal problem exists in part because domestic and sexual abuse and issues of homelessness are pervasive, complex, and interrelated in ways that people don’t initially recognize. Beckbridge says, “In a community like ours, which looks very affluent at moments, it can be difficult to understand that these issues are going on. If you’re not personally impacted or you don’t know someone who is, it can be difficult to understand just how common it is.” Family homelessness is not obvious, but part of Doorways’ outreach is to educate the community on what their neighbors are facing, both in terms of challenges and successes. Beckbridge calls this a “home-focus approach” which helps raise awareness that these issues impact all. It’s no longer those people over there; it’s people that the community knows and cares about.
Creating real safety and stability often requires long-term support and family-friendly services – much more than just one night of safety. For example, Doorways provides a pet shelter for people who arrive with furry family members. Beckbridge says that this is actually one of the more common reasons why victims stay in abusive situations; they don’t want to place pet dependents in situations where they may not receive food, shelter, or care. In other cases, survivors may not have any knowledge of basic budgeting because their abusers have controlled purse strings so long. As a result, part of Doorways’ services includes a financial independence track so that individuals can learn how to manage savings and are empowered towards economic stability. One of the larger issues that arises in situations of abuse and homelessness is the traumatic impact on the children. According
to Beckbridge, over 50% of Doorways’ clientele are children, and they aim to treat children as individuals in their own right. Offering services such as play therapy, counseling, and individualized care can “interrupt the intergenerational cycle of violence by helping kids heal from what’s happened to them.”
All in all, there are four different levels of support that Doorways offers the community: an immediate safe response that includes a 24-hour hotline, crisis intervention, court and hospital advocacy, and safety planning; a safe housing response that includes emergency shelter and long-term housing; a “comprehensive support system of services that teach individuals the skills and tools that they need to be safe and independent” like financial counseling and children’s services; and community partnerships that create a “continuum of care” for community members affected by these issues and a source of education for the community as a whole.
Despite such complexity, Doorways served over 2700 people each year in Arlington, VA. Eighty percent of their clients exit to safe housing, ninety-three percent of children with trauma receive counseling, and two thirds of clients reduce debt while three quarters build savings. Beckbridge believes that this impact in the community is due in part to the many community partnerships that Doorways has developed over the years: “We truly are able to do what we do because we are a part of a continuum of care that allows us to focus on what we are most effective at doing. The safety net of nonprofits helps enable each individual organization to be as effective as possible.” It is a networked system where organizations “work together in such a way that benefits those we serve” and donors throughout the community help sustain these services.
In addition, Doorways prides itself on the individualized attention it is able to give to each client that walks through their door. “No one’s story is the same as anyone else’s,” Beckbridge says, “and these issues really can’t have one-size-fits-all solutions.” It is incredibly important for organizations like Doorways to personalize their services, to meet individuals where they are, and to empower them to get to where they want to go in order to break the systems of oppression that keep survivors in cycles of abuse. According to Doorways, “We’re not just a temporary solution to the problem. We offer the skills you need to solve those problems today and tomorrow. If we were to only give someone a $5000 check, it may pay their rent and child care for the next month or two, but then what?” True empowerment lies in an individual’s ability to learn lifelong skills that create stable independence.
Doorways’ success lies in its ability to reflect at every moment possible. It may be a matter of recognizing services that another organization is already providing to the community, or it may be analyzing quantifiable data about clients’ achievements, looking at real numbers in real time. This constant reflection allows the organization to constantly reexamine the strategic plan so that what is working continues to work and what isn’t is revised in order to be more effective. Most importantly, “Listen to the people you serve. What people will tell you is huge. We are constantly listening to our clients and our community and asking how we can do better.” This intentional way of organizing and making change has created a holistic, complex, and effective understanding of issues surrounding domestic violence, abuse, and homelessness.
Linley Beckbridge, Communications and Outreach Manager, joined the Doorways team in May 2015. She is an alumna of Mount Holyoke College, where she earned her B.A. in International Relations and Spanish studying international human rights.
Krystin Gollihue is a current doctoral student in the Communication, Rhetoric, & Digital Media program at NC State University. Her research focuses on digitally-born composing practices and American Indian digital rhetoric.