Domestic Violence Shelters Struggle to Meet Needs

Aug 10, 2021 | News

By Olivia Mohr

Domestic violence shelters in Kentucky and nationwide are struggling to meet a growing need for services.

In Bowling Green, Kentucky, the Barren River Area Safe Space (BRASS) is at or above capacity most of the year. Tori Henninger, executive director of BRASS, said the increase in the number of domestic violence victims with unmet needs may be caused by a number of different factors, including an increased number of barriers to victims’ safety and an expansion of what victimization means. She said BRASS seeks to serve as many victims as it can. 

“We’re just trying to figure out the best way to make sure that we’re able to provide as many services as possible,” Henninger said.

BRASS, a domestic violence shelter that serves 10 counties in Kentucky, seeks to meet the needs of as many victims as possible through its shelter for endangered victims, through its housing programs, and through other services.


According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, based on domestic programs’ participation in the National Census of Domestic Violence Services, surveys calculating unmet requests for services in one day found that there were 12,197 unmet requests for services in 2015, up about 15 percent from 10,581 in 2011. However, the number of victims served in one day increased about 7 percent, from 67,399 in 2011 to 71,828 in 2015.

In Kentucky, the number of victims served in one day decreased about 15 percent between 2011 to 2015, from 1,185 in 2011 to 1,004 in 2015, and the number of unmet requests for service in one day increased. There were a reported 129 unmet requests for services in one day based on 2015’s Kentucky state summary, up about 84 percent from 70 in 2011.

In order to provide services to victims, Henninger said BRASS looks for barriers between victims and freedom from abuse.

“The way that we do our work is we look at the barriers to safety, so a barrier to someone’s success, to self-sufficiency, to being able to live and breathe and take care of themselves all on their own,” she said.

Henninger said barriers can come in many forms and have both evolved and increased in number.

Abusers often deprive victims of access to money, transportation, and documentation including identification and other resources. Because of this, survivors often have difficulty finding housing, jobs and loans due to lack of appropriate clothing for job interviews, lack of transportation, criminal histories, addictions, lack of proper documentation and poor or nonexistent credit histories, she said.

“A lot of these things we put in place to make sure we’re protected end up being barriers,” Henninger said.

Though survivors’ histories may reflect badly on them in the eyes of potential employers and landlords, Henninger said they are often due to factors outside of the survivors’ control.

“It could be that it’s not about what they did,” Henninger said. “It’s about what their abuser did to them. So many times, abusers will utilize financial abuse as a tactic for domestic violence to maintain that power and control.”

Henninger said the idea of victimization has also expanded. In the past, the phrase “domestic violence” applied primarily to husbands physically abusing their wives. Now, it applies to many other forms of abuse, including physical, emotional or psychological, financial, and verbal abuse, and it applies to abusive relationships between individuals who are married, who live together, or who have a child or children in common together. Henninger said Kentucky has been able to expand that to intimate partner violence, which applies to any form of abuse between individuals who are romantically involved in some way.

Because the idea of victimization has expanded and victims face so many barriers along the path to recovery, there are many factors and complications that may play a role in increased reports of unmet need.


BRASS is a 28-bed, three-bathroom facility, and it also has toddler beds, cribs and bassinets that are not included in the official 28-bed capacity. The 28 beds are split among eight rooms, and the beds not included in the official capacity can be moved from room to room. Henninger said BRASS has been at or above capacity 90 percent of the year, and that’s why the organization wants a larger facility.

When there is not enough room at the shelter for everyone who needs services, BRASS refers victims to other shelters or to hotels or motels when they are in danger and BRASS cannot provide them with the shelter they need.

“That’s the great thing about being part of a state coalition, is that we try to work with each other as best we can whenever someone has space and if someone is willing to relocate,” Henninger said.

In addition to its shelter, Henninger said the organization also provides help to victims transitioning to more stable housing.

Their housing programs are meant to help survivors move out of the shelter and into stable housing. Henninger said BRASS has a short-term program through which BRASS provides deposits and three months’ rent for victims, and they have a long-term program that provides assistance “indefinitely and permanently.”

BRASS also talks to landlords and asks if they are willing to come down on rent and they ask hotels and businesses who are remodeling if they can have the old furniture to give to survivors who do not have furniture.

There are 28 staff members at BRASS. There is a licensed professional clinical counselor who can provide therapy, an in-the-works clinical psychologist who is in the process of earning a degree and who Henninger hopes will be in practice by next summer, and a substance abuse counselor on staff.  BRASS can do a lot of initial assessments to be able to at least help people start getting through the education process on substance abuse, forming healthier relationships, looking for red flags and other education, but often BRASS must refer survivors out for ongoing, intensive therapy. Henninger said the substance abuse counselor can provide education but cannot treat survivors because of the type of facility BRASS is, as she said Kentucky requires facilities to be certain types of facilities to be able to do treatment for substance abuse.

Henninger said BRASS focuses on educating survivors and helping them become more self-sufficient.

“Through trauma-informed care, through the idea of really trying to make sure that we’re understanding and helping and not just protecting and providing safety, we’re doing more than just making sure they’re safe, which is still our number one goal,” she said.

Pam Hurt, assistant director of BRASS, said that BRASS teaches survivors about red flags in relationships that may lead to abusive behaviors and how to form healthier relationships.

“Ultimately, domestic violence is all about power and control,” Hurt said. “It’s who you’re with, who you see, who you talk to, where you go, how much money you spend, how much money you have, how you act, what you say. As long as somebody’s not trying to dictate and control that will depend on whether or not this person is a good person for you or not.”

She said BRASS also has a pattern-changing group that meets every week that talks about self-esteem, financial freedom, the effect domestic violence can have on children, and what to say and expect in certain situations.


Hurt said that one of the biggest challenges in meeting the needs of victims is that there is “still a stigma attached to domestic violence,” and it often takes victims a long time before they are willing to end relationships with their abusive partners.

She said the biggest need survivors tend to have is for housing. They need places to live and she said it is often difficult to find safe and affordable housing in the region, and the fact that victims often have bad credit histories, criminal records, past addictions and bad landlord references makes finding housing a challenge.

“It’s kind of a whole conglomerate of different things that can cause the increase of lack of ability to access those resources,” Hurt said. “It’s not just one thing.”

Hurt said domestic violence programs also face immigration-related issues, as some immigrants are bribed to come to the United States and, once they come, they are abused “in every way humanly possible.”

She also said human trafficking has intermingled with domestic violence as abusers will sell their partners for money and drugs in exchange for sex.

“There’s a whole other world that’s intermingled with domestic violence that’s not really even really being addressed,” Hurt said.

Domestic violence programs also face challenges with funding, as it is not always consistent or sufficient to meet the need of victims.

Mary O’Doherty, deputy director of the Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said there are limited funds to put survivors in hotels or motels if shelters are too full, and limited funding may cause victims to not seek help. She said that if a victim turns to a shelter and he or she is told there’s no room and he or she is going to be referred to a different shelter or homeless shelter, perhaps a shelter that does not specifically serve domestic violence victims, she can see why that might be a “disincentive” for victims.

“They might think ‘oh, there’s really no help for me out there,’” O’Doherty said.

O’Doherty said that, if victims do not reach out for help, “the ultimate consequence is that they don’t leave their abuser.”

Though domestic violence shelters face many challenges, Henninger said Kentucky shelters are going to do whatever they can to meet the needs of as many victims as possible.

“I think pretty much any shelter across the state of Kentucky is going to fight like hell to get whatever an individual needs,” she said.

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