On the Horizon

New YWCA Shelter hopes to give domestic abuse survivors privacy & dignity

SPECIAL THANKS: to Ashley Home Furnishings for staging a until with special touches and furniture for our story. 

When Anna found herself pregnant and fleeing domestic violence, she turned to the Billings YWCA for the practical help and emotional support she needed.

She was grateful for all the ways the Billings nonprofit helped her, giving her a place to stay, lending her emotional support, guiding her in her job search and helping rebuild her self-confidence.

But sometimes, living at the Gateway Shelter, whose 14 bedrooms house both families and single individuals, could be stressful. Most everything — the eating area, the bathroom and the laundry — were communal.

“The shelter was full of women going through trauma,” says Anna, whose name was changed for this story. “Sharing the bathroom and laundry facilities with the other families could be difficult.”

Starting in early April, residents will gain more privacy with the opening of the new two-story, 16,500-square-foot, 25-studio-unit Gateway Horizons Shelter. The building, constructed near the original Gateway Shelter, is completed, awaiting only the new furnishings before it opens.

Each unit will contain one or two beds, a small living room with a love seat and TV, a kitchenette and a bathroom with a shower. The boost in privacy is more in keeping with what is now considered the best practice for such a shelter, says Erin Lambert, YWCA interim CEO.

Erin, who has been with the Billings YWCA for 17 years, has worked her way up through the ranks of the organization, including a stint as shelter manager for about eight years. Through it all, she’s watched the evolution of shelters like theirs. 

“It started with a safe home network – almost like the underground railroad-type movement,” she says. “Then it went into more of a communal model of sheltering.”

That model was adopted by the Billings organization when it built its first 10-bedroom shelter about 25 years ago.

“The community and the folks at the YWCA, when they decided to do that in the mid-1990s did a fantastic job,” Erin says. “But later, it became a better practice to offer individualized spaces for privacy and dignity. It gives survivors the best experience.”

When she took over as shelter manager in 2008, Gateway Shelter wasn’t always at capacity. Now it almost never has an open room and if it does, the room doesn’t stay open for more than 48 hours.

“Then you start making hard decisions around when it’s safe to tell somebody there’s no room and nothing you can do, or trying to decide if this is truly an emergency situation where we need to expend funds on a hotel, because those funds are limited.”

As the need for bedrooms increased, offices and meeting rooms gradually were converted into four additional bedrooms. Even that wasn’t enough.

Then, two years ago, just before Christmas, a generous gift came out of the blue and opened a new possibility. Philanthropist MacKenzie Scott awarded the Billings YWCA an unrestricted $1 million donation.

Erin, then chief operating officer at the YWCA, met for discussions with CEO Merry Lee Olsen and others to discuss the best use of the money.

“Knowing we were beyond capacity for sheltering, and a new model, a better way of doing it, existed, it really made sense for us to use this as our launching point and get this new shelter built,” Erin says.

From there, fundraising began in earnest, resulting in financial donations from a variety of sources that, to date, have totaled nearly $4 million. In 2021, time was also spent designing the building and getting final bids from contractors, signing construction contracts and putting the construction loan financing in place.

The new shelter, with nearly double the rooms, was designed by HGFA Architects, and Jones Construction served as the general contractor. Ground was broken in April 2022. The building was completed in early January.

All that is left is for the new furniture to be delivered. The furnishings, which Erin says were chosen for their durability and warmth, is expected arrive in mid-March. 

A tour of the completed Gateway Horizons Shelter revealed the building’s light-tan walls and LVP flooring, the smell of paint still lingering in the air. Each floor contains a large laundry area with three washers and dryers, all free for residents to use.

A $100,000 grant from First Interstate Bank will equip and stock a family food center to provide basic nutrition to the families who stay at the shelter. Food is also provided by Family Service of Billings.

Family food center funded in part by First Interstate Bank 

The individual units, one specifically designed as handicap-accessible, will be supplied with dishes, pots and pans, as well as bedding and towels.

“Somebody could literally come with the clothes on their back and we could make it work for them,” Erin says. “We partner with Family Service to offer clothing vouchers.”

An advocate will be on the new premises 24 hours a day to support the temporary residents. Legal services are also available, as is a housing navigator to help find more permanent housing. A case manager “helps with everything else,” Erin says.

The YWCA doesn’t rely on a one-size-fits-all program or formula for those seeking safety and assistance after suffering domestic or sexual violence, or human trafficking.

“I think it’s really important that we allow them to say, ‘Here’s what I would like my life to look like,’ or ‘Here’s how I need help,’” Erin says. “Then a provider meets with them and says, ‘Let’s figure out how to make this happen.’”

Erin calls the shelter “a launching-off spot” rather than a long-term solution. The typical stay is 90 days, but there are exceptions when a need arises. Anna was one of those exceptions.

She arrived in Billings seven months pregnant, leaving behind an abusive relationship, and hoping to start fresh with a new job. She had already qualified for low-income housing, but finding a rental in a tight housing market was nearly impossible.

Then things fell apart with her job, and Anna called the YWCA’s 24-hour Help Line for aid. She stayed at the Gateway Shelter for five months. With help from the shelter staff, she was able to find a job, which she has held for several months, and day care for her infant.

Anna then got the opportunity to move into the YWCA-owned Gateway Vista Apartments that house low-income families with rents based on a percentage of area median income. Once there, in an apartment that affords her even more privacy, Anna’s stress level decreased.

“I have another opportunity at life,” she says. “I had been going so fast for so long to be safe for me and my son,” she says. “Being able to unwind and watch at TV show together and laugh and giggle has been a miracle.”

She’s happy for the individuals and families who will find that kind of private space when the Gateway Horizons Shelter opens. She hopes it will give them the same peace and care she has found since she first connected with the YWCA in spring 2022.

“When I first got there, I was stuttering,” she remembers. “I was homeless, disheveled and feeling terrible. That quickly changed when I saw how much support there was.”

Now she has a job she loves, her baby is thriving, she has a place to call home, she’s improved her credit score and one day hopes someday to buy a home of her own.

“My future is bright and my son is happy and healthy,” she says. “I’m so proud we could do it and so grateful for opportunities the Y has given me.”


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