Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

St. Paul is home to the first domestic violence shelter in the country. They just celebrated 50 years

A black-and-white-photo of a woman and children baking.
A scene from a kitchen in the early days of Women's Advocates, a shelter for survivors of domestic abuse founded in 1974.
Courtesy of Women's Advocates

St. Paul is home to what’s considered the first shelter for survivors of domestic violence in the nation. It started when a group of volunteers in a legal office were taking calls from women seeking advice about divorce and changing their names.

Shelley Cline worked with the founders of the organization back in the 1980s. Holly Henning is the current executive director of Women’s Advocates and they both joined Minnesota Now to talk about the growth of the organization.

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Audio transcript

NINA MOINI: It's Minnesota Now. I'm Nina Moini, in for Cathy Wurzer. Saint Paul is home to what's considered to be the first shelter for survivors of domestic violence in the nation. It started when a group of volunteers in a legal office were taking calls from women seeking advice about divorce and changing their names. As Sharon Rice Vaughan told NPR News in 1978, they quickly learned that some of the women on the other line were in danger.

SHARON RICE VAUGHAN: And that's-- was a shocking discovery that was made by us working in Saint Paul in, I don't know, 1972 and '73, that there wasn't any place for women to stay in an emergency, where her safety was threatened and her children. So that's the first priority is safety, to be safe, to be protected, to have a chance to decide what she wants to do.

NINA MOINI: Vaughan, who died in 2015, was one of the founders of Women's Advocates, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Shelley Cline worked with the founders of the organization back in the 1980s. She is still working in this area. Holly Henning is the current executive director of Women's Advocates, and they're both on the line now. Thank you so much, both of you, for being here.

SHELLEY CLINE: Thank you for having us.

HOLLY HENNING: Yeah, thank you.

NINA MOINI: Absolutely. Shelley, I'll start with you. I understand you got involved in the 1980s, but what have you--


NINA MOINI: --heard about, you know, what this effort looked like in its earliest days?

SHELLEY CLINE: In its earliest stages, when Women's Advocates started, it was this terrific group of women that really put the voices of victims first and wanted to see themselves as advocates and that the victims of domestic violence, the survivors, weren't clients. They were residents of Women's Advocates. That they wanted to take domestic violence out of being a private family matter and have it be seen for what it is, a human rights issue.

NINA MOINI: Absolutely. And what has it been like working with women? Maybe others, but women in particular in these situations for so many years?

SHELLEY CLINE: You know, it's been wonderful. I consider this as many people, and I'm sure Holly does, too, that doing this work, it's almost like a calling. That the women we work with, the women we serve, they're warriors. And the men we serve, too. They go through so much and they come forward to get the protection and the safety that they deserve.

And your colleagues, you work with a very vibrant, tenacious, strong group of women across all different fields, and men, all different practices. And it's difficult work and it's hard. And we learn a lot and we make missteps. But when you look back at what's been accomplished since 50 years of Women's Advocates, it's amazing. Lives have been saved.

NINA MOINI: Absolutely. And then Holly, I understand you came into your role at Women's Advocates last year, and next week, you're going to be closing on two apartment buildings. Can you tell me about how important it is to have resources like this, to Shelley's point about what resources that are able to be provided at this point in time for people who need it? What are your plans for those buildings?

HOLLY HENNING: Yeah, I just want to say thank you both for having me here and sharing space. And I think particularly, we're really interested in broadening our perspectives to really serve all identities. I think with this new initiative, we want to really be sure that we're serving folks who have disabilities, folks maybe who are male victim survivors of domestic violence, and really reaching out to the LGBTQIA community to ensure that any survivor of domestic violence has a safe space and can access services.

I think that Women's Advocates has done an amazing job, you know, walking with survivors and utilizing our current spaces the best that we can. And it is a very sacred, safe space for primarily female-bodied identities. And you know, we really want to ensure that we are here and a resource to community that really expands on this work and really ensuring that we can serve anyone, regardless of how they show up, needing help.

NINA MOINI: So providing more emergency shelter space and then more services beyond that. Shelley, how have the resources available to survivors changed since you started doing this work? Here we are talking about more than just a place to maybe stay for one night, but those wraparound services.

SHELLEY CLINE: I think that our wraparound services have increased greatly as-- and also, as Holly spoke to, being aware of all the survivors needing services and the intersectionality of all those components. Our agency, an example, we are not a shelter. We go out 24/7 after there's been an assault. We go to the hospitals. We see victims and work very closely with Women's Advocates and the other domestic violence programs.

Unfortunately, we still struggle and we still have to fight for the resources that are needed-- and this is statewide-- to serve victims of domestic violence, because the levels of violence and domestic violence crimes and assaults, they're still up there, and they've increased over COVID. So that is a struggle. And hats off to Holly and her team for taking this innovative work and going a step further that is much needed and getting those resources.

NINA MOINI: And Holly, we're talking about just all the different people you serve in the different walks of life and the different stories. But the language we use to talk about this issue has changed a lot, too. And if you think about organizations starting as battered women's shelters and-- you know, we wouldn't use those terms today, right? I mean, what do you think about how that has all progressed?

HOLLY HENNING: Right. Well, I think the original kind of work that Shelley touched on in the beginning was really born out of the women's movement. And so honoring that the best that we can, but also recognizing that there were certain identities and there were certain folks who were left out of that movement in the beginning. And I think making all of the necessary changes is important. And I think we're hearing direct feedback from survivors that stay in our different programs to make sure that our services that we're offering are really meeting the needs of the folks accessing the services, right?

And I think it really is kind of the founding-- going back to that founding moment of, it was a really grassroots-led, person-centered approach that all of those amazing women set out to do. And I think we still are tied to that, and we're still doing that. We've just expanded and adapted on what that means with the survivor voice at the table really guiding the work that we're continuing to do.

NINA MOINI: Yeah. And you know, we've talked about this great increase that you're going to have, where you're going to be adding 58 beds and increasing the capacity in Saint Paul by about 56%, I'm reading here. That's amazing, because I understand you are still having to turn people away. And I wonder what it would take, what else you would need to make sure that that doesn't have to happen.

HOLLY HENNING: Rght. Well, I know Day One graciously works with all of our shelters. We're essentially a network. And they take all of those first-facing calls and really look at some of the data. And I know on average, between I think it was 2020 and 2022, the Twin Cities metro kind of area had fewer than five beds available for victim survivors.


HOLLY HENNING: Like 94% to 95% of the time. And so despite Day One, receiving an average of 95 calls a day, a little over 50% of those calls are from people seeking shelter. And that's just there not being enough shelter beds available in the metro area to really meet the need that exists. And so, you know, obviously us increasing our capacity and providing these new shelter beds is going to help with that. But I think it's just a small drop in the grand scheme of the need that we're really seeing here in community.

NINA MOINI: The hard work continues. Lots of progress, but lots of hard work to come. I thank you both so much for your time and for your work.



NINA MOINI: Shelley Cline is the executive director of the Saint Paul and Ramsey County Domestic Abuse Intervention Project. And Holly Henning is the executive director of Women's Advocates.

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