What happens if you come out as an atheist or LGBT and your parents kick you out of the house? What if you’re trying to leave an abusive relationship but your entire social network is contained within your church?
There are resources out there for people who need a safety net, but they’re often faith-based.
But there’s finally a non-profit organization dedicated to helping people without religion get the help they need. It’s called Secular Avenue:
We often talk about how churches provide community — I think they’re great at it — and we’ve seen atheists attempt to replicate that (sans the whole God thing). But this is a practical approach to a very serious problem. This will help the people in our secular world who need it the most, at a time when there are very few others they can rely on.
I asked Noelle if she would answer some questions about the group and our conversation is below:
What inspired you to begin Secular Avenue?
I saw a need in an online atheist group that I created. People would post about desperate situations — physical and sexual abuse, financial and social isolation, and more. People in the group came together to help them, and I realized that we have no formal venue to help people in our own community.
But Secular Avenue isn’t just for domestic violence victims. We help anyone who is unsafe at home for any reason — coming out as LGBTQ or leaving religion are two other reasons people become unsafe at home. We want to help those people, too. In the future, Secular Avenue will help more than people who are unsafe at home. We will expand our programs to include anyone in the secular community who needs help achieving safety, stability, or autonomy. [Note: You can read more about the origins of the group here.]
What does SAFE stand for?
SAFE stands for Secular Avenue for Exit — it’s a program to help people who are unsafe at home get to a safe place. The name was inspired by my mom, who always said “Safety is the most important thing” (most often during my rebellous teenage years).
Why is this organization necessary?
It’s necessary because many of the aid organizations for those in need are religious.
It’s necessary because most of the secular domestic violence and homeless shelters are full.
It’s necessary because it’s important to take care of those in our community, as well as those outside who need help without religion.
It’s necessary because there are so many people, like those in the group I mentioned above, who need help.
It’s necessary because when people are asking for help, they are at their most vulnerable. Being unsafe is an especially vulnerable time — they may be fearing for their life or the safety of their kids. They can be taken advantage of or manipulated into praying or saying they believe in something they don’t. We need to offer a secular alternative that doesn’t try to convert people, or force them to participate in a prayer or lie and say they believe.
How much help can someone hope to receive?
It really varies with the situation. People who are international might receive more financial aid than someone in the U.S. But it depends a lot on what that person needs to get safe and what local resources we can leverage in their area. We expect that grants will be anywhere from $500 – $2,000.
Can people get help and remain anonymous?
No, they really can’t. It would be too difficult to help them otherwise. We need to know certain details about their situation so that we can provide the best help possible. But we do have a very strict confidentiality policy and we follow VAWA [Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act] standards regarding confidentiality of personal information.
Would you reject anyone who needed help?
That’s a really tough question to answer. If we couldn’t get enough information about their circumstances to help them, I suppose we might reject their application. Or if we didn’t have the resources to help them I suppose we might have to reject their application. What we really need the most right now are donations so that we can help more people. We are a very new organization, and we are already at or over our capacity with the applications we have.
What’s the process from when someone applies for help to receiving it? What’s going on behind the scenes?
We receive the application and respond to them by their preferred contact details within 24 hours. The board approves the application or we request more information about the person’s situation. We Skype with them or meet with them in person to discuss their situation further and conduct a needs assessment (a best practice tool for domestic violence victims).
Then we approve or decline the application. If we approve it, we collect resources that we think can help the person, offer free therapy services, connect them with a lawyer for a consultation, and determine where the gaps in their needs are. Once we determine those gaps, we figure out what type of financial aid package we might offer.
How can you verify they really need help?
Because of the shame and sensitivity involved with the areas our program addresses, there is no easy answer. In order to apply best practices in trauma-informed care and survivor assistance, we need to start from a place of belief. People who have been abused live in fear of not being believed, and we don’t want to shame them or make them feel like they have to prove their abuse, leaving religion, or coming out as LGBTQ.
We’ve put into place safeguards to help ensure that funds are spent as intended. For example, we conduct Skype or in person interviews with potential clients (to ensure that they are a real person) and we pay vendors directly for financial assistance after receiving a bill or invoice from them to verify the expense.
What type of legal help are you requesting from lawyers who can offer their pro bono services?
We are requesting lawyers who are willing to offer free consultations to people in their states, as well as lawyers who are willing to work with clients we refer to them at a discounted rate, or on a pro bono basis. We are especially looking for those who specialize in family law and VAWA in all states, and/or nonprofit/business law in Texas.
Are you working with other organizations or people?
Yes, we are working out partnerships with multiple organizations, both organizations within the secular movement as well as organizations outside the secular movement. Ex-Muslims of North America and Recovering from Religion are two of the organizations within the secular movement that we are developing close relationships with.
Like Noelle said, if you’re interested in helping Secular Avenue, there are two big ways you can make a difference right now. You can make a donation or, if you’re a lawyer, provide pro bono services for those needing assistance.
I can’t wait to see this group grow over time. I had a chance to get a sneak preview of this project last year and I immediately offered to lend my support. I hope you will, too.