Supporters of an Abuse Free Environment, known by locals as SAFE in the Bitterroot, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Having served as the executive director of the organization for the last 15 years, Stacey Umhey has a lot to say about it.
“Our story is a great example of a community recognizing that there is a problem and rolling up their sleeves and pulling together to solve that problem,” said Umhey at a recent open house.
Thirty years ago, she said, the local club of Hamilton Soroptimists identified a need for a safe place for women and children to go who have been victimized by domestic or sexual violence. At that time, the nearest place a person could get help was in Missoula.
“As you can imagine,” said Umhey, “if you are in a crisis at three o’clock in the morning, finding your way into and through Missoula, Montana in the winter can be quite a challenge. So, the Soroptimists did what Soroptimists do so well. They got busy and got connected with the people up in Missoula and started learning about how the Missoula YWCA provided their services.”
She said the Soroptimists started with a small network of safe houses that were primarily the homes of those Soroptimist members.
“And that’s what I think is such a beautiful part of our story because Soroptimists is a women’s civic organization made up, primarily, of professional or retired professional women. These women were working all day and then going home and taking care of their families and opening their doors in the middle of the night to keep other families safe.”
Umhey said that the organization’s anniversary led her to review the archives and she found material indicating that, at the time, these women were taking on a great risk for themselves and their families.
“When they were forming our organization,” she said, “the women did not even allow their last names to be used in the newspapers. They were referred to as ‘Kim, a Safe Advocate’.”
At one point they got a small grant from the Department of Health and Human Services to set up a 24-hour telephone hot-line.
“They realized after a short period,” said Umhey, “that this was a really necessary service to our community and that it couldn’t be an all-volunteer effort any longer so they founded our organization.”
At first it was called Family Violence Services but in 1999 it was re-named Supporters of an Abuse Free Environment, or, as most people call it today, SAFE in the Bitterroot, or just SAFE.
Umhey said even though it has felt at times that the organization was growing very quickly, she believes it was actually a measured growth in response to the people being served. They opened their first Emergency Shelter in the early 1990s and then rented a two-bedroom house in Hamilton in 1995 using that for a shelter and renting office space elsewhere. She said they did a re-assessment at the time of the real needs of the program and came up with three top issues to deal with: housing, the need for employment, and the need for child care to enable employment for a person to really get back on her feet and actually function in a self-supporting fashion.
Umhey said that domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness. She said SAFE’s Emergency Shelter housed about 100 people last year for a total of 2,500 to 3,000 nights. The average stay in the facility is three weeks.
“We believe no one should have to choose between being homeless and living in an abusive relationship,” she said. “But we also realize that a few weeks is not enough time for someone to do what they really need to do to survive.” So, they have developed a transition program where people can stay in a home for up to two years as they put a new life together for themselves and their children.
Children are a big part of the picture when it comes to domestic and sexual violence.
“We know that children are incredibly negatively impacted by witnessing or experiencing domestic and sexual violence,” she said.
Rachel Shea, a Shelter Advocate, said that working at the Emergency Shelter has been an eye opener. She said when she first started working in a larger emergency shelter in a big city the stories she was hearing from women coming into the shelter were overwhelming at first.
“I was horrified and confused,” she said. “I didn’t realize these kinds of things were really happening to people.” She said last year they served 61 adults and 50 kids.
Teddi Hailey, case manager in the Transitional Housing program, said that they have eight adults and 24 children on a waiting list for housing.
“That shows you that there is a population out there sleeping on couches in friend’s homes or sleeping in automobiles,” she said.
Community Programs Manager Jamie Ogden said that in 1998 a collection of agencies and professionals was formed called the Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence that has helped raise community awareness of the problems. Sonya Bitterman is the Coalition Coordinator.