Juneau’s women’s shelter opens doors to men, all genders

Starting next month, Juneau’s domestic violence shelter is going to offer its full services to people of all gender identities.

AWARE, which stands for Aiding Women in Abuse and Rape Emergencies, has historically only given full services to women and children. The organization, which began in the 1970s, does provide limited care for male victims of abuse and sexual violence, but has to work with partner agencies to provide housing or other more permanent services for men.

AWARE Deputy Director Mandy O’Neal Cole said she hopes that being fully inclusive to the whole population results in more people feeling comfortable enough to seek help.

“We may not be able to meet all of their need, but there shouldn’t be anyone who’s experienced harm and fear in their home who thinks, ‘AWARE’s not for me. It’s for someone else.’ We want to change that and make sure everyone knows they are very welcome to seek help here,” Cole said.

The goal is to start providing services to all as soon as Jan. 1, Cole and Executive Director Saralyn Tabachnick said. They’re meeting with around 30 community partners in a meeting today to get feedback and involve the partners in the plans moving forward. They said the feedback, both from partners and from clients, has been positive.

The shift is years in the works, Cole said Monday. The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, in its civil rights section, stated that organizations that provide services to just one sex, they should also be able to provide “comparable services” to individuals who did not identify as the sex that the organization serves.

This prompted questions among providers about how to define “comparable services” and how they could provide them. Cole was then at a training session in November 2016 with other shelters and providers around the country where the idea was discussed. She and other AWARE staffers did research into how feasible it would be to “widen the doors,” as Cole said.

“The way it’s always been done is this way,” O’Neal Cole said of serving only women and children, “but that doesn’t mean it has to always be that way.”

They explored various resources and options and determined that they would be able to accommodate anybody. For safety reasons, AWARE staff doesn’t reveal much about the inner-workings of the facility and the organization, but Cole and Tabachnick said they were confident they could safely and effectively accommodate people of all gender identities at AWARE.

There will be quite a few questions in the coming weeks and months, Cole and Tabachnick said, and they want as many of the questions as possible to be directed to them. Cole said she would much rather see people’s questions in her email than on a Facebook page for everybody to see.

Tabachnick agreed, saying that if somebody who’s on the fence about asking for help might see a concern on social media about the shelter and it might scare them away.

“It’s never easy for someone to reach out, I don’t think, to ask for help or to admit that they’re in a relationship that’s abusive,” Tabachnick said, “so we want to make that as easy as possible.”

Cole said she was confident that opening the shelter to everybody would not result in any safety problems. The biggest concern she has at this point, she said, is whether the facility and the staff will have to expand because of this change. They aren’t sure how many new clients will come in as a result of this change, and Cole said the shelter is almost always at or near capacity.

“The wider we open the doors, the more we’re going to have to gauge, ‘How much more help do we need?’” Cole said. “I suspect, if we need help, Juneau will provide. It always has.”

Where to direct questions

Mandy O’Neal Cole, Deputy Director

Phone: 586-6623

Email: mandyoc@awareak.org

Saralyn Tabachnick, Executive Director

Phone: 586-6623

Email: saralynt@awareak.org

• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or alex.mccarthy@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.

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