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An Old Nursing School Building Gets New Life as Domestic Violence Shelter

Meg Lambrych, RN-BC
Updated October 27, 2023
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    An old nursing school building was donated to the YWCA to create a new emergency domestic violence shelter in Yakima County, Washington.
    Yakima, Washington downtown area at sunsetCredit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

    As in many places nationwide, domestic violence is at epidemic levels in Yakima County, Washington. The problem has become so acute that the Yakima YWCA facility, which helps families affected by domestic violence, is forced to turn away hundreds of families yearly because it simply lacks the resources to help.

    “Since January 2023 alone, we’ve already turned away 600 families seeking safe shelter,” YWCA Executive Director Cheri Kilty told NurseJournal. “Yakima County has the highest rate of domestic violence in our state, so the need is huge.”

    Kilty and other YWCA leaders were desperate: They needed more space. Casting about for answers, they found one in a local institution that had served the community for decades but had recently fallen into disuse and dormancy: the St. Elizabeth Hospital School of Nursing. Used intermittently since the school closed in the 1970s and fully vacant since 2020, the building, YWCA officials believed, could be a perfect setting for safe, temporary housing for domestic violence victims.

    They approached the property owners, who agreed to donate the nursing school building to the YWCA. A brand new, 112-bed emergency domestic violence shelter is now in the works.

    St. Elizabeth Hospital School of Nursing: A History of Service

    From 1907 to 1971, the St. Elizabeth Hospital nursing school in Yakima served as a community pillar, providing education and healthcare emphasizing faith and service. Nearly 1,100 nurses graduated from the program throughout its history, and many stayed on to serve their neighbors in the attached hospital for their entire careers.

    When the school closed its doors, the future of the building was uncertain, and the community felt the loss. More than 50 years later, the building will meet Yakima’s needs again as the site of an emergency domestic violence shelter.

    Strained Domestic Violence Resources in Yakima County

    Domestic violence is a silent epidemic affecting millions of individuals and families annually in the U.S. Yakima County struggles with the same issues: too many domestic violence victims and insufficient resources.

    According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 20,000 phone calls are placed to domestic violence hotlines daily, and 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner contact sexual violence, or intimate partner stalking.

    The COVID-19 pandemic only worsened these conditions as many people lost housing, employment, and income, which places domestic violence victims at even greater risk of abuse.

    Emergency shelters that can accommodate children and families are especially needed.

    The YWCA currently runs a 24/7 domestic violence shelter for women and a phone helpline staffed with advocates who answer questions from victims day or night. They also operate 16 apartments and offer long-term support and advocacy for victims and their families.

    But each year, the needs of victims far outpace the available YWCA resources, so YWCA leaders knew they needed to expand.

    When Kilty heard that the Astria Hospital Campus, formerly the St. Elizabeth Hospital nursing school, down the road closed in 2020, she saw an opportunity and reached out to the buyers, Hogback Development.

    New Life for the Nursing School

    Kilty approached the Hogback Development group to see if they could use the old nursing school building for emergency shelter beds. Incredibly, the commercial real estate firm agreed to give the building to the YWCA.

    While the YWCA was thrilled with this generous gift, Kilty noted that the 94-year-old building will need significant upgrades that cost around $18 million, so they are currently fundraising and applying for grants for the project.

    Aside from these upgrades, the building is generally in good shape and will provide a strong foundation for the new emergency shelter, which will provide 112 beds, 41 rooms, and case management services for families in need.

    YWCA leaders plan on using as many original building elements as possible to cut costs. Thankfully, the building, built by the Sisters of Charity of Providence St. Elizabeth, is a study of 1920s construction. The building has a long and celebrated local history as the order ran the nursing school for 64 years, graduating 1,085 nurses.

    Looking to the Future

    One unique element of the new shelter is the eight beds available for male domestic violence victims. Kilty shares that they are witnessing increasing numbers of male victims seeking YWCA services but currently do not have the resources to help them.

    While men are frequently victims of domestic violence, very few emergency shelters offer services. This new emergency shelter aims to address the growing needs of male survivors of domestic violence in Yakima County.

    YWCA leaders hope to open this new emergency shelter in 2025 if they can raise the funds in time.

    The YWCA expressed gratitude for the gift of the former St. Elizabeth Hospital nursing school building as this essential community resource will provide life-saving shelter and hope for domestic violence victims in need.

    Even after 50 years, the St. Elizabeth Hospital nursing school still offers hope and a future for the residents of Yakima County.