By Dusty Christensen
NORTHAMPTON — The local nonprofit Safe Passage, which works with survivors of domestic violence and relationship abuse, has announced that it is closing its emergency shelter program.
Open since 1977, the congregate shelter has provided refuge for those fleeing violence and in need of a temporary place to stay. However, Safe Passage Executive Director Marianne Winters said that as the local housing shortage has grown more severe, the length of stay for clients has soared from around several months when the shelter first opened to more than a year in recent times. Some have stayed for as long as three years, she said.
“It takes a lot longer to assist them to find permanent housing and in conditions that are unacceptable for anything but a brief stay,” Winters told The Shoestring in a phone interview Monday. She added that the organization will continue to budget assistance for helping those in immediate need of an emergency safe place. “We will always plan for the temporary hotel stay … for someone whose life is in danger and has to escape tonight.”
The Northampton shelter, whose location is undisclosed to protect those living there, had become part of a network of such shelters available to survivors across the state. That meant that it was less likely that a Hampshire County resident would be able to use one of the six rooms in the shelter, Winters said. The state’s Department of Public Health had been paying for those rooms, meaning Safe Passage will lose that funding when the shelter program closes by July 1.
The Department of Public Health “will go back out to the network to fund those,” Winters said. “There’s a net loss across the state of zero.”
In a press release about the closure — sent by a prominent PR consultant, Kate Norton — Winters said that Safe Passage will begin “refocusing strategies” to “better utilize our capacity and resources to respond to survivor needs, staff needs and community needs.”
“Immediately, we will focus our efforts on intentionally and strategically building on best practices from the field and leaning into the deep knowledge and expertise of housing and economic advocacy in our Western Massachusetts community,” Winters’ said in her statement. “We recognize this moment as an inflection point and an opportunity to deliver stronger, more effective, and more impactful services to the underrepresented people who need Safe Passage the most.”
In an interview, Winters didn’t mention any concrete programs that the organization would create in place of the shelter. She said that as the shelter closes, Safe Passage will engage in outreach to local organizations working on housing and job-placement issues. Four shelter staffers have been laid off as a result of the shelter closure, but those who remain will begin working with clients before they get into a situation where they need emergency shelter, Winters added.
“It starts with working with people individually, specifically on their housing and related economic needs,” Winters said.
Safe Passage will also work to raise the voices of survivors in “policy arenas,” pushing for everything from improved housing and food assistance to workers’ rights, Winters said.
“On the state, local and federal level, there are policy issues that we can work on that will actually create better conditions,” she said.
One former shelter worker, Annie Wood, said that she was “disheartened but not surprised” by the shelter’s closure. She said that during her time as a shelter staffer from 2019 to 2022, employees often said that it looked like Safe Passage was looking for an excuse to close the program. The shelter was dysfunctional and had “an incredibly high rate of burnout among staff,” she said.
Wood said that the emergency shelter program was vital for the community and for survivors in need of a place to stay in an area lacking options for them. Like Winters, she said that the housing crunch in the region made it difficult to find permanent housing for survivors.
“It was a challenge,” she said. “I don’t think the program handled that challenge well.”
In 2020, staffers at Safe Passage unionized with United Auto Workers Local 2322. Wood said that a central reason for organizing was to have a collective voice to advocate for shelter clients without being disciplined. She said staff and those in the shelter faced retaliation from management for speaking out, making it hard for those living in the shelter to build a community there.
“Management expected us to be in solidarity with them mistreating clients when we wanted to be in solidarity with the clients,” Wood said.
Safe Passage management declined to recognize the union, instead hiring a lawyer from the Springfield management-side law firm Skoler, Abbott & Presser. On its website, the firm touts its “union-avoidance” programs and its ability to provide “union-free employers with assistance in maintaining their non-union status.” Staffers eventually voted 14 to 6 to unionize in the summer of 2020.
But Wood said Safe Passage and its law firm dragged out contract negotiations as long as possible and that many of the original organizers either quit or were let go during two years of bargaining. Last year, staffers at the organization successfully voted to decertify the union, meaning workers at the organization are no longer unionized. Winters told The Shoestring that Safe Passage had not yet agreed to a contract when the employees moved to decertify the union.
In a statement — issued through Norton — Winters did not respond directly to Wood’s allegations. She said that Safe Passage’s work and mission “is rooted in respect, dignity, and privacy, and that applies to personnel and the people we serve, past and present.”
“We know from survivors that safety is not solely about location,” she said. “We made the decision to discontinue the emergency shelter program in favor of comprehensive, survivor-centered and more effective programming that can better help more people with interventions and resources, based on each survivors’ needs and goals.”
In Safe Passage’s announcement of the shelter program closure, Northampton’s two state lawmakers — state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa and state Sen. Jo Comerford — praised the organization.
“Thank you to Safe Passage’s board, leadership, and staff for making a necessary and courageous decision to reimagine service,” Comerford said in her statement. “This signals to all of us about the responsibility for the state to do better to improve and expand the affordable housing opportunities available to all.”
The decision was also applauded by Debra Robbin, the executive director of Jane Doe Inc. the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence. Robbin described it as reflecting Safe Passage’s “commitment to better aligning the needs of survivors in Hampshire County with inclusive approaches that support safety, economic stability, and more.”
In addition to the shelter, Safe Passage also provides peer-support services, counseling, advocacy, legal support and community education. In 2020 — the most recent year for which Safe Passage’s federal nonprofit tax filing is available — the organization had total revenue of $2.35 million and expenses of $2.66 million. Winters made $123,701 in total compensation in 2020.
Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.
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