Why it takes so long to open a safe house

Amirah Boston

I am SO ready for Amirah to open.

Agencies on ground-level have confirmed that the need for aftercare is both real and huge and we will be filled up very soon after we open.  So why can’t we open?  We’ve been preparing for three years, figuring out what we need to do and putting the pieces together.  Does it really have to take so long? Hundreds of passionate, generous and patient people have supported us so far.  How much longer will we all have to wait?   So goes my internal battle.

In times when I get especially impatient, I have to coach myself away from the edge of making bad decisions just because I’m tired of waiting.  The truth is, there are very good reasons why it’s taking so long; and since I’m feeling impatient again, I thought I’d invite you to listen in as I remind myself of those reasons, in case you wrestle with some of the same questions.

1. We are at the beginning of a movement, when little is established and much is being discovered and created.

Perhaps an analogy will help.  If you have a craving for cake, you have the choice of running to the store and buying one, or baking one from scratch.  The first option is quick and easy (20 minutes before cake is in mouth), the latter takes a little longer (60-90 minutes).  Either way, the process is simple and the time frame is fairly short.  But what if you lived in a time when cake hadn’t been created yet, and you had to start with questions like “what is cake?” and “what combination of ingredients and heat will make cake tasty?”  Now you’re looking at a much more complex and lengthy process.

The idea of creating safe homes in the US that provide whole-person restorative care for adult trafficking survivors is surprisingly new.  The few that have opened are still in their infancy, creating their systems and learning what does and doesn’t work; so there’s no proven blueprint for how to do it.  Factor in, too, that these existing safe homes are committed to slightly different missions in very different locations, so what is true and works for one doesn’t necessarily apply to others.  Also add in that there is precious little training and few established protocols out there for partnering with law enforcement and medical and mental health professionals, all of whom have essential roles in making aftercare work.  So, we have to work out a Boston-specific vision, write our own “manual”, and create our own partnerships and protocols, etc, etc.  And to do all that well takes a long time.

2.  The system we have to create is necessarily complex. 

If all we had to do was find a facility and staff it with good-hearted volunteers, we could have opened long ago.  But in order to care well for trafficking survivors, we need to build something quite a bit more complex.  We have to figure out, for example, how to create a high level of safety/security without making it feel over-controlled.  We need to understand what it means to be “trauma-sensitive”, and hire experienced staff and train our volunteers so they can walk with our residents in ways that support restoration rather than hinder it.  We need to create paths for survivors to get to us, build relationships and protocols with many partners, understand the legal parameters in providing care, establish sites where we can assess health prior to admittance, arrange for translation services, and figure out how to create an environment where each survivor can be on her own path of restoration AND contribute to a restorative community dynamic in the home.  All that and much more has to be worked out BEFORE we open, lest we bring women into an environment that’s not ready for (and could potentially re-traumatize) them, only because we haven’t done our homework and prepared well.

Do we really need to do all that?  Well, those who are experts have said to us, without exception, “YES!”; and as we talk with them in more detail about how we’re thinking and the pieces we’re putting together, they often say something like “wow, finally someone understands!” and are quick to offer their ongoing support.  All the thought, documentation and relationship-building that’s needed to support such a complex system takes a long time, and thorough preparation is something we can’t compromise.

3. And then there’s the money. We need to raise $500,000/year.
When we realized that we would need to hire multiple qualified staff, we knew that would mean a much larger budget than we originally anticipated.  To be sustainable, we really can’t open until we have six months of funding ($250K) in the bank and a well-developed system of ongoing support from foundations, major donors, community partners and grassroots supporters.

So where are we now?  We have a well-articulated program, a full array of partnerships and a renovated home that’s ready for residents.  Our program, called Breaking Free:  A Whole-Person Approach To Breaking Free From Commercial Exploitation, has been wonderfully successful as we’ve offered it to survivors in the community.  The final, major factor that will determine when we open is funding.  There’s no shortage of fundraising efforts or strategy…it just takes time, and we don’t yet have all we need.

The money could come soon.  Or not.  Until we know, I’ll keep coaching myself away from the edge.

Bob Atherton is Amirah’s Executive Director.  

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To learn more about Amirah, or to support our work, please visit www.amirahboston.org.

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