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Rooms for Refuge

Nearly 10 years ago, Naomi Berman-Potash was working in the sales department of a hotel when she read a newspaper article detailing how victims of domestic abuse were being turned away from full shelters. Her idea was to ask hotels to offer free rooms to these battered women.

“It was sort of a tough start,” she remembers. The hoteliers, concerned about security, were reluctant to participate. Berman-Potash realized that the idea would be more palatable if she could present it through a formal organization. In 1990, Project Debbie was born.

The organization, which began in Houston, Texas, now includes agencies in New York City and in Tampa and West Palm Beach, Florida; there are plans for extensions into New Hampshire, Los Angeles, and Washington State. In each of these areas, Project Debbie collaborates with local non-profit agencies (for example, the Junior League of New York and Victim Services in New York), which, as official project agencies, then screen and place women. Berman-Potash trains these organizations in how to approach hotels and keep the process going. Project Debbie is run completely by volunteers. Collaborators include any organizations that have the means to screen applicants, from women’s shelters to law enforcement agencies.

Since security is the main concern of hotels, Project Debbie employs an intensive screening process before accepting a prospective participant. Someone being closely stalked, for example, may endanger hotel guests and will not be placed.

The organization does help many women who otherwise would wait for space in shelters or be turned away. For instance, in Houston, a mother and a son over 14 years old will not be placed in the same shelter. Project Debbie enables them to live together. It will also set up a itinerary of hotels for women who have fled their abusers and are now traveling, but do not have money for accommodations.

Since 1990, the organization has arranged an average of 1,000 room nights per year. “Most hotels have been really cooperative,” said Berman-Potash. “It’s amazing how many we have on board.”

Anyone interested in volunteering to work on Project Debbie can contact Naomi Berman-Potash at (561) 585-8612. She has prepared training manuals and, if able, will conduct personal training sessions.