By Asjylyn Loder
Friday, October 10, 2003
A group of neighborhood residents oppose a shelter for battered Asian women that is undergoing move-in renovations in Brooklyn, N.Y. The publicity exposed the shelter's location and could compromise the shelter's safety.
BROOKLYN, N.Y. (WOMENSENEWS)--A new battered women's shelter has bitterly divided a Brooklyn neighborhood amid accusations of bigotry, racism and insensitivity to women's safety.
The New York Asian Women's Center bought a four-family house in Carroll Gardens, an increasingly gentrified neighborhood here, in June for $960,000 and began $200,000 in renovations in August. They hope to open the 20-bed facility for battered women and their children in mid-November.
The Manhattan-based center runs three other shelters in New York with a total of 46 beds--all rental properties. This is the first building they have purchased and it represents an enormous fundraising effort and financial commitment for the group.
The organization was founded in 1982 and runs a 24-hour hotline in New York using staff and volunteers who speak up to 16 Asian languages and dialects. Language barriers are often an impediment to battered immigrant women seeking help.
Opponents of the shelter site, who formed a group called Concerned Citizens of Carroll Gardens, "outed" the shelter's location in an attempt to force the Asian women's group to move. The opponents, many of them close neighbors of the site, fear that the shelter will bring down their property values. They are also afraid that the facility will draw violent abusers to the neighborhood, endangering elderly residents and children. In addition, these residents feel snubbed by the New York Asian Women's Center because the organization did not notify community leaders of their intentions.
The controversy marks a change in the way shelters must do business, forcing a greater level of openness with community leaders and residents. While this will broaden community awareness around battered women's issues, it may also compromise the privacy of women needing protection from abusers.
The aggressive campaign against the shelter has alarmed the Asian women's center, which fears that such campaigns may compound women's reluctance to come forward at a time when those battered immigrants who are in the United States illegally are becoming increasingly afraid of being reported to immigration services to be deported or detained.
A spokesperson for the Family Violence Prevention Fund, based in San Francisco, Calif., said that this is the first instance they are aware of where a shelter location has been made public in an attempt by neighbors to force it to move.
The flashpoint of the Carroll Garden's controversy came in late August when opponents of the shelter banded together to form the Concerned Citizens of Carroll Gardens and began publicizing the shelter's address in leaflets distributed throughout the neighborhood and on its Web site. Last Saturday, dozens of protesters picketed the location, which is still under construction.
"This was a real strategy on their part," said Kyung Yoon, chair of the New York Asian Women's Center, which owns the new facility. "They wanted to 'out' the address so that the location would be compromised and we would not be able to use this as a place of safety for women," she said.
Danny Contreras, who runs the Web site and is on the board of Concerned Citizens of Carroll Gardens, formed in response to the proposed shelter, said that his organization is sympathetic to the needs of women and would not have published the address if the facility had been occupied.
"It was the only weapon the community felt they had against the organization itself, because they snuck in," Contreras said.
After receiving bad press, they stopped printing the address on their protest literature and took it off the Web site. Pictures of the shelter remain, as does the intersection where the shelter is located. Media outlets covering the controversy have respected the location's privacy and have not reprinted the address.
Domestic violence shelters typically keep their locations private to protect victims from abusers. Battered women face the greatest danger of being killed by their abuser after they have left the relationship.
Contreras contends that the lack of forewarning left community members feeling "violated" and "betrayed." Yoon has said that, had her organization realized the potential opposition, they would have been more proactive about securing community support.
"They interpreted this like we were 'sneaking' into the neighborhood," said Yoon. However, Yoon pointed out, domestic violence shelters usually try to operate discreetly. "Our whole way of doing things," she said, "is pretty low-key."
It is this accusation of "sneakiness" that has raised concerns that the protests from a close-knit Italian-American neighborhood could have a racist element. Racial slurs against Asians often include the stereotype that Asians are dishonest and devious.
"Opponents' safety concerns seem to me like a front for less acceptable sentiments, such as that the shelter is not in keeping with 'the character of the neighborhood.' Whether this is racism, NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard feelings) or simply a desire to keep out less affluent people, I don't know," said Carroll Gardens resident Emily Owens, who supports the shelter's right to move in.
Some statistics show that there may be a higher incidence of domestic violence in the Asian community, or that violence may be more lethal. In 1997, 18 percent of Massachusetts residents killed as a result of domestic violence were Asian despite the fact that Asians comprise just 3 percent of the state population. In 1998, 6 percent of those killed were Asian, according to the Boston-based Asian Task Force against Domestic Violence.
After Sept. 11, many immigrants felt vulnerable to deportation or detention. Then in July, the Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal Act, or CLEAR Act, was introduced in Congress. The bill would give local police the authority to enforce civil immigration laws, undermining other legislation that assures abused women that they will not be deported. Women's rights supporters have come out in opposition to the bill.
Almost 24 percent of the foreign-born population of New York State emigrated from Asia, according to the 2000 Census. The New York Asian Women's Center focuses on helping women over the obstacles, such as language and cultural barriers, facing battered immigrant women.
The proposed shelter, called Rose's House, is a four-story building that will house a maximum of 20 women and children at a time for stays of between one night to several months under strict rules, including a curfew.
Opponents say they are worried that the "transients," as they call the women and children, will be hanging around outside and will drag down property value.
By calling the abused women "transients" and playing up concerns that abusers will terrorize the neighborhood, Concerned Citizens of Carroll Gardens, which claims to have more than 300 supporters, echoes some misconceptions about domestic violence: that it only happens to poor or homeless women and that abuse victims "attract" violence.
"The women are not criminals. They are victims of crime," Yoon said.
The Concerned Citizens says its members are also worried that elderly residents and children will be unsafe because the shelter will draw abusers in search of their victims. But Yoon says that the shelter will be less likely to draw abusers if the address is not publicized.
"In our 20 years' history, we have never had a violent incident at any of our shelters and it is because we keep privacy paramount," Yoon said.
In response to Concerned Citizens of Carroll Gardens, a rival group called Carroll Gardens Supports Children and Abused Moms Proudly, has emerged to make it clear that Concerned Citizens does not speak for the whole community.
"I live a couple of blocks from the site," said Damijan Saccio, a homeowner in the area. "They're not going to present any danger to the neighborhood whatsoever. And I'm not worried at all that property values are going to go down."
Members of this counter group tore down leaflets that publicized the shelter's address. Saccio thinks the controversy will eventually blow over but in the meantime feels "marked" within his community, where his support of the shelter is well known.
"They had a meeting where they didn't let anyone else talk," Saccio said, echoing Yoon's recollection of the same meeting, where shelter supporters were shouted down. Both Yoon and Saccio said participants at the meeting threatened violence against the shelter and its supporters.
Local legislators--including Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, New York Councilman Bill DiBlasio and Assemblywoman Joan Millman--have made public their support of the shelter while working behind the scenes to secure a compromise. Through these lawmakers and the local precinct, the New York Asian Women's Center has tried to forge community ties to facilitate the communication of complaints and concerns.
Asjylyn Loder is a freelance writer in New York.
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