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What is a Safe House?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 04 August 2014
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The term safe house has several definitions. Most of them imply protection for people in danger, but why people are in danger defines how the term safe house is used. There are a few typical safe houses that can be considered:

  • A place where witnesses in danger may be safely protected by police prior to delivering testimony.
  • A shelter for battered women and their children.
  • A sanctuary for people who are seeking political asylum or protection from deportation.
  • A place to hide people in violation of the law.

From numerous films about police and organized crime, many are most familiar with the safe house as a place to hide someone who will give condemning testimony in a trial. Such a safe house is organized by the police, usually in remote location, and security measures are tight. Only a few people know the location of the house, since there is concern that discovery of location would lead to an attempt to harm the witness or the police protecting him prior to the delivery of testimony. In many films, the location of the safe house is discovered, but usually this does not occur in real life.

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The second form of safe house is a shelter, which again may have a secret or protected location where mostly women and their children may hide from abusive spouses and/or parents. Battered women shelters do not typically rely on police protection, but rather on the secrecy of their location. They may have security systems and very strict rules regarding contact with outsiders in order to keep all people sheltered there protected. Only a few people who might be in contact with women who are abused know the safe house’s location. This might include medical personnel, social workers and police officers.

During the reign of slavery in the Southern US states, many people and churches in the North opened their doors to slaves escaping to Canada. These were also called safe houses, and a veritable network of them arose. There was significant danger for the people running the safe house, especially as America approached the Civil War. New laws could fine or jail people who in any way assisted fugitive slaves. It was a mark of bravery that the Underground Railroad supporters continued to provide safe houses for escaped slaves in the hopes that these people would someday be free.

Sometimes churches or individuals have taken the same approach by offering sanctuary to those seeking political asylum or attempting to evade deportation. In modern times in the US, such sanctuary from churches tends to be illegal, and may only be offered for a short period of time. Sanctuary may mostly exist so that people who seek refuge can remain in the country while they prepare better legal defenses to avoid deportation.

The safe house was also a common feature, and has become so again, for those people who are avoiding military service. Though the US currently has no draft, draft dodgers in 1970s might use a network of safe houses to avoid being sent to Vietnam, by getting into Canada. Several churches have offered temporary refuge to people already in the military who conscientiously object to participation in certain wars, like the Iraq war.

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Discuss this Article

anon950446
Post 3

It is so frustrating to be in this situation. Thank God for safe houses. I don't know what I would have done without them. I was truly homeless until I was given sanctuary in one.

PurpleSpark
Post 2

@googie98- That is a really bad situation for your sister. Unfortunately, unless you live in a large town, there just aren’t any shelters. Many churches will offer some type of services but not many of them offer a safe haven for someone who needs shelter for more than a couple of days.

In addition, many people don’t want to get involved in domestic situations because they fear that they are putting their own family in danger. There needs to be something that the local officials could do. It would probably take a petition or the community members showing up at city council meetings for them to consider it.

googie98
Post 1

Unfortunately, my sister was the victim of spousal abuse. Her husband started drinking a couple of years ago and became very abusive towards her. She sustained many injuries and went to the police on more than one occasion. She lives in a fairly small town. The third time that she reported the abuse to the police; she had two broken ribs, a black eye, and a broken nose. The police officer took the report and told her that she would have to testify against him in court. She told him that she and her daughter had nowhere to go to get away from him. They advised her to stay away from him the best she could until the court case.

There are no “safe houses” in that town. There are no battered women’s shelters. We, as her family, live five hours away and she couldn’t just pack up and leave. What is a person to do? Shouldn’t every town have some type of safe house to protect victims of abuse?

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