Private Space: Empower


Making one’s own decisions; reclaiming the autonomy and dignity eroded by abuse

Private rooms for single women and families facilitate healing from trauma.
WSCADV’s focus groups with shelter residents indicated that most residents prefer single rooms because they offer greater privacy, reduced noise, reduced embarrassment and improved quality of sleep. Survivors spoke about wanting to lock the door when they are in a room, as well as when they leave it.
In a King County, Washington study focusing on the cultural accessibility of shelters, the authors found that shelter residents and advocates recommended providing more privacy for residents, noting that
“some of the interviewees mentioned that clients sometimes feel that they are always being watched and that they never have enough time alone, especially quiet time by themselves or with their children.”
(Kerri Kumasaka and Gretchen Test, Culturally Competent Shelter Alternative Project, King County Women’s Programs, 1992, p. 21)
In their extensive, multi-state study of survivor’s experiences in shelter, Eleanor Lyon, Shannon Lane and Anne Menard found that being unable to find privacy was one of the most common problems residents reported, and one of the problems that was the least likely to be resolved. Less than half of the survivors reporting this issue said that the issue had been resolved to their satisfaction, in contrast to many other issues that were resolved 75% of the time or more. (Lyon, Bradshaw and Menard: Meeting Survivors’ Needs, November 2011).

Two photos of the YWCA Pierce County. Top: A small round table with an ornate chair and lamp. Bottom: A daybed next to a window with long curtains.

“I don’t feel lonely because I have my children there and if I want to talk to somebody I will go to other rooms and chat with women. Or they invite me to eat or I invite them” - Resident, YWCA Pierce County

Consider This
Domestic violence abusers often demand emotional, physical and sexual availability at all times, and deny their partner’s right to set boundaries. Survivors and their children may have been woken in the middle of the night to be assaulted or harangued. The ability to feel secure and in control of one’s physical environment, choose when to be social and when to be alone or just with one’s children all facilitate healing from trauma and abuse. Going to sleep knowing that no one can enter one’s room also increases feelings of security.

32%: The percentage of residents who've reported conflict with other residents - making it the most commonly reported problem in communal shelters. Privacy helps alleviate conflict and increases survivors' comfort. "Meeting Survivors' Needs: A Multi-State Study of Domestic Violence Shelter Experiences," by Eleanor Lyon, Jill Bradshaw and Anne Menard, November 2011.

Beauty in shelter spaces provides inspiration.
Beauty is healing. In focus groups, shelter residents indicated their appreciation for art, inspiration and beauty in shelter.
Beauty is not about expensive materials or luxury. Present in many things, it can be expressed by bringing in nature, and by thoughtful use of color, proportion and texture.
Colors that resonate with the communities served can have positive associations and make a space feel uplifting, familiar and friendly. It can be tempting to utilize dark colors for furniture or even walls to hide dirt, but these have a tendency to look heavy and show wear. Wall and ceiling colors can also have a marked effect on the brightness of a space; light colors reflect light and make a room brighter, while dark colors absorb light.

A colorful mural of a zebra
“Everyone should know, we should start making shelters beautiful; because when it is beautiful like that it does something to you, does something wonderful to see all this beautifulness…“ – Resident, YWCA Pierce County
Strategy in Action
Detail from a mural painted by a local artist in one of the apartments at the YWCA Pierce County.
Residents and staff appreciate opportunities to control and adjust their environment.
Independent control of lighting allows residents and staff to adjust levels of light in individual rooms/units and in the communal spaces to create intimacy or facilitate tasks (for example, reading light next to sofa, overhead lights, operable windows, and ceiling fans).
Independent control of thermostats allows residents and staff to adjust temperatures in individual rooms/units to accommodate sensitivity to temperature.
A living room with large windows that open.

Strategy in Action
At the Plaza Apartments, an affordable housing development in San Francisco, individuals can control airflow, temperature and lighting in all occupied spaces.

Consider This
People suffering from depression are often cold because their blood pressure drops. Alternatively people suffering from anxiety disorders – even transitory problems with anxiety – tend toward feeling overheating with elevated temperatures and sweaty palms. (Institute for Human centered Design, Seattle, Washington: Site Visit Report & Recommendations/Information Resources, August 2009)

Designate rooms or units for people with pets and service animals.
Hardwood or linoleum floors, washable area rugs and microfiber or leather furniture simplify keeping these rooms clean.
Service animals are critical to everyday functioning for those who use them.

A dog sleeping on an area rug in a living room.
In focus groups, survivors and their children talked about enjoying having other people’s pets in shelter, and how painful it would have been to leave their pet behind.  WSCADV staff to 3 year old: "What do you like about living here?" 3 year old : "I like the puppy!" WSCADV staff: "Me too. What else do you like?" 3 year old:"I like the puppy!"
In communal shelters, a “quiet room” provides respite.
The “women’s retreat” at one program – intended to be a child-free space for meditation, reflection and quiet – was highly valued by residents for the refuge it provided from the busy, noisy common spaces and shared rooms.
For residents with mental health issues, especially those with anxiety, some larger communal spaces may be too stimulating. A quiet space can provide a welcome alternative to the other communal spaces.

A woman looking out of a window as the sun sets.
Flexible furnishings increase the comfort and usefulness of even the smallest spaces.
Sliding panels and curtains, daybeds and Murphy beds, and movable furniture can be used to hide clutter and personal effects; create open space for non-sleeping functions and socializing; and allow privacy between family members.
A bed in a niche behind a curtain.
"I put her to bed and pull the curtain." - resident at the YWCA Pierce County
Plentiful lighting in bedrooms, including overhead and task lighting, contributes to a resident’s sense of comfort and control.
(conversation with Valerie Fletcher, Institute for Human Centered Design)

For more strategies that support residents’ comfort and control, see
Communal Space: Empower
A chair next to a window. A lamp is on a side table nearby.