It happens all the time at hotels: The receptionist answers the phone. The caller asks to speak to someone. The receptionist puts the call through to their room.
If the person in the hotel room is a domestic violence victim, the receptionist could be putting her life in danger.
Most domestic violence shelters try to keep a low profile. There is no identifying sign on the door, no address that is easy to Google. Some send ride shares to drop off victims a few blocks away. All of this is done to protect the people who stay there: If the shelter’s location gets out, abusers might come knocking on the door.
Shelters had to shift gears in the pandemic, when the coronavirus made it dangerous to house every victim and their family under the same roof. To accommodate health concerns and social distancing requirements, many domestic violence shelters began sending more victims to hotels, motels and other short-term rentals. In Hampton, Va., Transitions Family Violence Services spent $75,000 on additional hotel rooms during the pandemic, said executive director Sanu Dieng — approximately double what it spent the year before.
At hotels, survivors may be less safe than they are in shelter, said Ruth Glenn, chief executive and president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. When guests check in, hotel staff often insist on seeing their identification and recording their full name. Because hotel staff members are not trained advocates, she said, they probably won’t be on high alert if an abuser calls or walks through the door.
A new, anonymized booking platform could help solve the problem. Launching officially in mid-August, Safe Stays by ReloShare is designed for organizations that work with domestic violence victims that need to house victims off-site. The platform has partnered with several prominent hotel chains that will accept an alias when a survivor checks in, then bill the domestic violence shelter for all expenses incurred at the end of each month. Shelter advocates can use ReloShare like a travel website, searching for hotels wherever is most convenient for the victim and book them as needed.
“In the past, we’ve relied on relationships between local shelters and hotels to get us through,” said Amanda Pyron, executive director of the Network: Advocating Against Domestic Violence, an organization that runs the Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline and utilized a pilot version of ReloShare. “But on the scale we needed hotels in the pandemic, that wasn’t going to work.”
In the spring of 2020, the state of Illinois was looking for places to house domestic violence victims, said Pyron, after communal shelters were deemed largely incapable of meeting coronavirus safety measures. Matt Singley, an entrepreneur with an engineering background, signed up to help. With feedback from Pyron and other domestic violence advocates, he developed an early version of ReloShare and reached out to several hotel chains.
During the pandemic, hotels seemed to show increased interest in partnering with advocates to develop a safe solution for survivors, Pyron said.
“They were like, ‘Well, no one is staying in our hotels anyway.’” Suddenly, Pyron said, domestic violence shelters had substantial bargaining power. “People were willing to work with us this time.”
Before it started using Reloshare, the Domestic Abuse Women’s Network (DAWN), a domestic violence shelter in Washington state, had to supply hotels with the full names of their clients, said Aushenae Matthews, the shelter’s program manager. “Hotels just would not help us,” she said. As far as she knew, she said, there was no screening process when abusers called. Hotel staff weren’t bound to protect a victim’s anonymity. Victim safety, she said, was an “ongoing concern.”
Once domestic violence victims leave an abusive situation, it’s crucial that they immediately settle into a secure location: Domestic violence victims are far more likely to be killed in the first few weeks after they leave than at any other time in the relationship. At that point, Pyron said, the abuser has lost their “power and control” and is desperate to get it back.
“They’ll do anything,” said Glenn, of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “They’ll call the hotel, call family and relatives, drive across state lines. When they’re escalating, nothing is outside of the realm of possibility.”
With the right confidentiality protocols, hotels could become a safer, more accessible option than shelters, said Pyron. If a shelter is around long enough, she said, people in the community will inevitably find out where it is.
A “scatter model,” where shelters place victims in a variety of hotels, could also make victims harder to track, according to Singley. Victims don’t have just one or two places to go to, he added: They can choose a hotel location from a long list, opting to stay close to work or close to their children’s school. If their situation is particularly dangerous, he said, they might choose to leave the state.
“Maybe they want to be farther from their home,” Singley said. “They can choose.”
After the Illinois hotline started collaborating with ReloShare, Pyron said she saw a marked increase in the number of men and LGBTQ people who reached out for housing help. While they might not have felt comfortable living in a communal shelter with mostly women, she said, they were much more interested in hotel rooms or short-term rentals.
It’s not yet clear how the recent uptick in travel might affect hotel interest in the program going forward. There may be fewer rooms available for survivors, said Pyron. But so far, Singley said, travel rates have not affected the partnerships between hotels and shelters. “If anything, interest in this program is growing from our approved suppliers,” he wrote in an email.
Even with ReloShare’s technology, there is still a ways to go before a hotel is as safe as a shelter, said Glenn. Shelters are specifically designed with survivor safety in mind. At a hotel, she added, you have to think: “Is the parking lot in a good place? Is the room on the second floor? Do they need to go in and out using an elevator?”
Shelters are also full of trained advocates, Glenn said, who understand the dynamics of domestic violence. If survivors are going to utilize more hotels as shelter spaces, she said, the hotels need to at least have a “point of contact,” someone assigned to manage the needs of the victims staying there.
“Until hotels really understand the nature of domestic violence,” she said, “you have to be really, really careful.”