Hospitality House, the precursor to SafeNet, was founded by a group of interfaith women in 1974 as a private non-profit organization with a mission of providing temporary emergency shelter for women and their children in times of crisis.
Any woman experiencing a crisis which leaves her and her children homeless or stranded was welcomed to Hospitality House. At the time of its founding, no shelters were known to exist for women and their accompanying children. It was an act of faith, courage and compassion that drove this small group of Catholic, Jewish and Protestant women to pursue the dream of providing a place of kindness and respite for guests who had encountered difficult circumstances.
Within a year of opening the doors of Hospitality House on West Second and Myrtle Streets, the founders realized that the shelter was too small with only three bedrooms and 8 beds. Daily, they were experiencing nearly twice as many requests as could be accommodated.
They also came face to face with the nature of the crises that most women had experienced, that being domestic violence. In 1978, they were able to move to the current shelter location at a confidential address. This was accomplished with the help of many including Mayor Louis Tullio, his wife, Grace, and Bishop Watson. The new shelter accommodated 23 women and children. Overcrowding was still causing families to double up in rooms or use cots during their short term stay.
A few years after the founding, Hospitality House leadership became aware of a movement out of a Philadelphia based Southeast Legal Service. A group of attorneys were spearheading legislation thought to bring relief to victims of abuse—a Protection from Abuse Order. Their lobbying effort was supported by several women’s advocacy groups and two shelters, including Hospitality House. This coalition of eight programs, all serving women, advocated and lobbied for the passage of this legislation. The group continued meeting and named itself the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Hospitality House Executive Director, Sheila Ardery, became the first vice-president of the board of directors of PCADV and the second president. PCADV became the model for all state domestic violence coalitions throughout the United States and developed best practices for working with battered women with the help of battered and formerly battered women, service providers and researchers.
The age-old question, “Why does she stay?”, could be answered in part by saying she has nowhere else to go. Shelter is a short term solution and the problems of lack of income and housing often cannot be easily resolved.
In June 1986, Governor Richard Thornburg took action to help Pennsylvania’s homeless problem and released funds for a competitive grant cycle. These funds enabled Hospitality House to purchase an eight unit, 3-story apartment building adjacent to shelter. Women and their children homeless as a result of domestic violence with a need for longer-term housing could rebuild their lives, establish an income source and continue in their search for permanent housing.
A key component of living with an abusive partner is isolation. The Bridge House program helps build networks and connections with family, friends and the community. This was the first transitional housing program for battered women in the United States.
TLC (Transitional Living Center for Young Mothers)
Teenage mothers who came into shelter continued to be a challenge. Often they had dropped out of school and lacked basic education, work history, life experience and life skills. In addition, they had the responsibility of an infant or young child. The nurture and structure that they needed did not fit well in shelter or Bridge House.
Presenting this underserved segment of the population to a group at Wayside Presbyterian Church resulted in their wanting to address this problem as their mission for the year. McKinney Homeless Assistance funds aided in substantial renovation of two properties adjacent to shelter. The first was donated by Mary Ann and Paul Brugger.
Wayside provided substantial matching funds and volunteer service including planning. The facilities are connected and attached to shelter, thereby providing safety and security without the investment of additional staff for overnight and weekends. Then Congressman Tom Ridge cut the ribbon in 1990 and supported the project as an antidote to the generational cycle of poverty which often begins with teen pregnancy.
This semi-communal project, which can house six mothers and six children, emphasizes literacy and basic life skills. In this year-long program, completing an education is a priority. Some residents, who were high school drop outs, started on a path where they were able to complete professional degrees.
PFACS (Protection from Abuse Coordinated Services)
From the early days of Hospitality House, volunteers and staff assisted with legal protection from abuse orders. Attorneys volunteered their representation at first and later were paid through a succession of grants. The rate paid, however, was always far lower than in their regular practice.
PFACS, a separate 501c3 nonprofit which is located at SafeNet, was incorporated in 1990. PFACS serves victims of domestic violence including those women from the community who did not need or want shelter.
Although a woman can be assisted in petitioning the court for a protection order at the PFA office at the Erie County Courthouse, she stands alone without representation before a partner that she may have good reason to fear. Years of abuse have eroded her self-esteem to the point that she may feel immobilized. Often her abuser has even convinced her that she is to blame for the abuse. It can also be very difficult to navigate the legal system alone so PFACS provides legal advocates/counselors to go with the clients to the courthouse. In addition, there may also be language barriers for immigrant and refugee clients. PFACS provides an interpreter to help the client understand the process.
PFACS also utilizes four very experienced Erie Attorneys and PFACS provides these services free of charge to their clients.
With options, counseling and legal representation, a woman is less likely to initiate the PFA process and then not follow through.
With an understanding of the cyclical nature of abuse, and the power and control dynamics affecting virtually all areas of her life, the victim feels more certain if her option is to pursue a PFA order. Legal intervention has been found to be very effective in breaking the cycle of abuse.
Legal services for abused individuals became more comprehensive through additional funding that was granted by then Governor Tom Ridge in 1999. These funds have enabled SafeNet to hire a full time staff attorney with support staff.
In Ridge’s days as a practicing attorney, he became well aware that leaving an abusive relationship can result in expensive and interlocking legal problems, such as custody, support, and divorce.
One of the services provided by SafeNet is Civil Legal Representation. (CLR). CLR is provided for SafeNet clients and includes legal representation for family law, custody, support, and divorce.
SafeNet’s in-house attorney provides CLR’s legal representation and a person seeking civil legal representation at SafeNet is not required to have a PFA to be eligible for representation.
In 1996, SafeNet was one of 12 programs in the nation selected for a federal grant to support collaborative projects between the health care establishment and domestic violence services. Our program evolved initially with then Hamot Hospital and Saint Vincent Health Care. Doctors, nurses and domestic violence program directors were trained to first understand the efficacy of intervention which would connect the victim with domestic violence services.
The SafeNet program has evolved to a 24 hour on-call service to the Emergency Departments of the two hospitals. SafeNet trains medical personnel on the importance of screening and the dynamics of domestic violence. A fully accredited medical conference is sponsored annually by SafeNet featuring a nationally known speaker. To date, SafeNet has hosted 16 conferences which are always sellout events.
The goal of the program, in addition to the training of health care personnel, is to link the victim with domestic violence services. We may transport the victim from the Emergency Department to shelter. Or we may meet the victim the following day at PFACS as she learns about legal protection from abuse or may involve herself in counseling.
Currently, our Domestic Violence Prevention Initiative task force includes representatives from Shriners’ Hospital, the VA Hospital and Mercyhurst University. Effective linkage of abuse victims with domestic violence services can save millions of dollars in a single community. Cost savings can be generated from police and ambulance response times, treatment of injuries and other health issues.
Victims are often high users of emergency departments, not just for battering related injuries, but for conditions that have resulted from the stress and trauma of living in such a relationship. The visionary Dr. C. Everett Koop stated the following while he was Surgeon General in the Reagan administration: “Domestic violence is our most serious public health problem and brings with it a price that our society can no longer bear”.
Counseling and Outreach Programs
Leaving an abusive relationship is a process and leaving physically is only the first step. Years of abuse alter the lives of victims and children alike.
Some show classic signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some have experienced being blamed for everything, or not being allowed to make decisions, even small personal decisions. Typical comments include: “I walk on egg shells.” “I have no life.”
The full process of leaving and restoring one’s life may take years. Prior to the capital campaign which began in 1998, SafeNet was fully aware that our scope of services and potential target population were limited by virtue of the fact that service provision took place in confidential “hidden” addresses. As the board steered itself toward a capital campaign, a name change was agreed upon and the name was legally changed from Hospitality House to SafeNet. With Honorary Chair, Susan Hirt Hagen and Chairs Ruth Burton and Cle Austin, the campaign was a success and SafeNet Center at 1702 French opened in 1999.
Counseling survivors of abuse differs from mental health or substance abuse counseling. It is non-diagnostic, wellness or strengths based, and it assists the victim in critical thinking about safety in its broadest application of well-being. SafeNet counselors are certified through Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence and as such are granted full confidential privilege under state law. Children, even those children whose parents don’t believe they have witnessed the abuse, are affected. SafeNet provides counseling for kids who accompany their mothers to shelter or support groups. Evidence-based practices, as developed by Jackie Campbell, Ph.D., help children to not take responsibility for the abuse, identify emotions with the goal of mastering negative emotions, and develop a safety plan.
Today, SafeNet also offers counseling at outreach offices in public housing and at Edinboro University.
In June of 2007, a new annex was opened. For years, overcrowding was a serious problem at SafeNet. At times, 28 women and children were living in a house originally built for a family of five.
With the opening of the new annex, additional bedrooms and living spaces for victims and their children were now available. Forty-three adult beds are now available.
This building project was funded by major gifts to SafeNet’s 2006 capital campaign.
The Big Backyard
A longtime dream was to have a place for children to play. Of the 500 individuals that are served each year in shelter, half are children under the age of twelve.
When several pieces of property around the shelter became available, the dream of creating a Big Backyard Children’s Garden became a possibility. During the 2010-11 fiscal year, the garden became a reality thanks to the hard work and fundraising efforts of Erie’s Manufacturer and Business Association, Roar on the Shore motorcycle rally, Dahlkemper Landscape Architects, and volunteers from Gannon University, especially Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity. Many local individuals, businesses, and organizations also contributed time, talent and treasure for which we are so very grateful.
In 2019, SafeNet celebrated its 45th year of service.