Domestic violence survivors in Franklin County only have one place to go if they need to seek refuge: a shelter called CHOICES. For the last 40 years, CHOICES has been operating out of an old house from the early 1900s.
After so long in the same location, Columbus’s undisclosed shelter started to become common knowledge—both for victims, and unfortunately, their abusers, according to lawyers at the Legal Aid Society. But the shelter is getting a brand new building, which means increased security and a new chance for secrecy.
Swiping a small key fob, CHOICES director Sue Villilo enters a vestibule to the new building. One door closes behind her, and she swipes to enter the next.
“This is one of the safety features that we have that we don’t have in the current facility,” she says.
The building is in the final stages of construction, and Villilo says the security upgrades are astonishing.
“The fence actually is motion-censored,” she says. “So it will light up when there is activity near a certain section of the fence.
"We’re moving from 1900 into the 21st century,” she adds with a laugh.
The building was designed to be a shelter: The windows are six feet off the ground, so there’s no fear of people looking in. Several doors can be secured remotely, should they need to lock down parts of the building.
“It is a pretty long list, as you can imagine, moving from a house built in 1900 to a new shelter that was actually designed for the purpose it is going to be used for,” she says.
The building was not only designed with security in mind –the architecture is also trauma-informed.
“We have the glass walls looking out into the courtyard, throughout this part of the building. So that if parents are eating and the kids want to go out and play, they can still watch them,” she says. “It’s really important for a victim of domestic violence to have that kind of visual cue of their kid and know that they’re safe at all times.”
Nearly 100 organizations in Ohio provide domestic violence services at some level, 80 percent of which can provide emergency shelter.
At any given time, half of CHOICES' occupants are children, and the new bedrooms can accommodate families of up to eight people. The old shelter offered about 50 beds, but demand grew higher than the space could accomodate, Villilo says.
Most nights, more than 70 people stay in the shelter. The new facility can hold up to 120, with the ability to expand.
Capacity is a big problem facing shelters across the state, according to the Ohio Domestic Violence Network, especially in cities like Columbus where population and rent prices are on the rise.
“Shelter stays are getting longer, which also adds to the capacity issue,” says Shelley Marsh, director of ODVN. “If shelter stays are longer because there’s not enough affordable available housing, then we can’t serve as many people.”
Marsh says it’s rare for shelters to get a brand new building, mostly because of the price tag—CHOICES aims to raise $18.5 million in grants and donations to get the new location up and running. But Marsh says a new building can offer shelters a fresh start, especially when it comes to secrecy.
“In many communities, it is a secret location," Marsh says. “But people find out where it is. We all joke, like, we’re not the best kept secret in town.”
The new shelter is undisclosed, too, but Villilo says it was important for CHOICES to put in place security measures as though the location was public.
“Our feeling is, in this age of technology in particular, that it’s not impossible to find the building if you really want to," she says. "If someone is really determined to do it, they’ll be able to do it."
CHOICES includes rules for survivors—like no taking photos in the building, no identifying other survivors, no posting on social media—but Villilo says it’s a delicate balance between keeping people safe and secure, and helping them feel at home.
If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, call 614-224-4663.