Talking in public about a confidential building use
March 29, 2010 9:53 PM   Subscribe

I am in a graduate college urban composition class, and I'm making a presentation, to about 45 people, about the history of a building over the years. I don't want to reveal what the building is currently used for.

The building in question is one of several prominent structures in a city that share a common past use (tuberculosis sanatoria). For the last 20 years, it has served as a women's shelter, and I know from friends and colleagues in health care and social work that this is not supposed to be common knowledge.

I want to be sensitive to the people in my class, many from social work backgrounds themselves, who might be uneasy if I mentioned its current use. Also, frankly, I want to be sensitive to potential and past victims, you never know who's in your class. On the other hand, I can't avoid mentioning that it's obviously occupied. So I'm thinking about calling it a residential treatment or care facility.

The class is pretty conversational, though, and I worry some smart alec will either blurt out its current use or ask for specifics (the class is split 50/50 between graduate and undergrad students).

Can anyone think of a better workaround? Should I just skip it? I'm male if that matters.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total)
Who funds the shelter? You could describe it as a council/state funded community services facility, or simply as a non-profit/NGO.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 9:57 PM on March 29, 2010

This bit of information would be more interesting than what most people would present about, so why exclude it? If it's part of the history of the building and I was the instructor, I'd probably wonder why you didn't mention it -- if I knew about that of course.
posted by thorny at 9:58 PM on March 29, 2010

Thorny, the poster said "this is not supposed to be common knowledge".
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:03 PM on March 29, 2010

My guess is that anyone with google & five minutes to spare could figure it out if they were curious enough -- I wouldn't worry about letting out any big secrets.
posted by mmdei at 10:13 PM on March 29, 2010

I think that women's shelters are pretty particular about not letting people know where they are. It's a safety issue. So I agree with you about not spreading that around.

I don't know what the best solution is, but using a non-specific term seems reasonable. It would likely be a good idea to clear it with you instructor first.
posted by SLC Mom at 10:27 PM on March 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think that women's shelters are pretty particular about not letting people know where they are. It's a safety issue.

This seems to be the key point, not made that clear in your question.

There is nothing to be gained by anyone if you blow this "secret". So don't. Use a non-specific term and make damned sure you're not dropping any hints that might get someone to blurt out.

If people push you hard for specifics, explain to them that to reveal any more would compromise certain people's safety.
posted by philip-random at 10:34 PM on March 29, 2010

Just say "it's a social services building now. And if you know the specific use, I'll ask you to keep it to yourself for privacy reasons." Those who know what you're talking about will drop it. Others might figure it out, but won't know for sure.
posted by barnone at 10:41 PM on March 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Good question. I think what you are looking for is a phrase that won't seem so vague as to invite inquisition, descriptive enough allow a person's mind to just gloss over it. You can say it now has a "residential" or "social services" function. Or that it's in use as a social services facility, or a even a community center. Maybe even a specialized community center.

I know that you have to give the neighborhood that it's in, but you won't need to give the address or even the street that it's on. I think I know which building / neighborhood you're talking about, and I don't think that people are that likely to drive past it, or even notice it unless they are looking for it.

How long is your allotted time? Do you have to respond to questions? If you have a solid outline, pace your presentation, and fill all of your time, I think you can give enough great information that the generic current function will kind of fade to the back.
posted by jabberjaw at 10:45 PM on March 29, 2010

If you aren't absolutely, totally sure, a sure as you've ever been of anything in your life, that something like "residential function" is an explanation that will be easily accepted without any further questions, I urge you not to use this building in your presentation. If you're obviously evasive, it's possible it could make people curious. Actually, since the building's history is interesting it might make people curious about it. Even a little unusual attention is not a good thing for a facility like this. For the women and children staying there, this is literally a matter of life and death. As you said, you never know who is in the class. Please don't jeopardize the safety of the people taking refuge for the sake of a class project.
posted by mostlymartha at 11:04 PM on March 29, 2010 [12 favorites]

I think I'd go with "it's been divided up into private residential units" or "apartments" - nothing to suggest that it's anything more interesting than an apartment building now, and nothing to suggest that it's in any way public.

You might also talk to your professor in private ahead and mention that there's a security issue. (You don't have to be really specific - just that it's a residential facility of some kind, and there are privacy and security concerns.) If they know that, they might be able to help head off any questions about current use if they come up in discussion.
posted by nangar at 11:39 PM on March 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

"Today it has been converted to offices and housing." Make it nondescript and boring.
posted by LarryC at 12:06 AM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree: make it sound boring and obvious. Offices and housing, it is (it probably does have offices and it does house people, doesn't it? So you're not even lying).
posted by NekulturnY at 2:06 AM on March 30, 2010

I think you should skip it. Reiterating mostlymartha, this is no small issue. The safety of women, children, and staff literally depends on the secrecy of the building's location.

You say it's one of several structures that share a common past usage, so it's not like this is the singular example of something important or interesting. Your presentation is probably complete enough without it if you can point to other structures used for the same purpose. If you think your instructor would know you omitted it and would want to know why, maybe have a conversation about your concerns beforehand.
posted by Eumachia L F at 2:59 AM on March 30, 2010

mostlymartha has the best answer here. As you say, you don't really know all the people in the class. I honestly think you could be jeopardizing someone's safety by doing this presentation.
posted by anastasiav at 4:51 AM on March 30, 2010

I volunteer at a women's shelter in Austin, and while it may come as a surprise, the location is not kept a secret. Yes, there is a TON of security, but after much debate on the issue, the organization decided against complete secrecy of the location. I know this is unusual and I could go into the reasoning for the policy more, but you may try to find out if this shelter has a similar position. If not, what mostlymartha said.
posted by murrey at 5:57 AM on March 30, 2010

I agree with murrey -- you really need to talk to the shelter before making this call.
posted by bettafish at 6:09 AM on March 30, 2010

Do not use this building in your presentation unless you talk with the shelter and run your description by them. If they balk, choose another building.
posted by decathecting at 7:02 AM on March 30, 2010

Yes -- what Murrey said. Definitely talk to the shelter staff.

I'm grad student doing some research work on domestic violence information, and I have seen a number of brochures for women's shelters and DV services from different cities that prominently feature the location of the shelter -- I've even seen one with a picture of it as it was a prominent building on a small town main street.

In some cases, the staff have decided the need to be visible and accessible to the women in need trumps the (near impossible these days) goal of a being a secret location. There are other reasons for this kind of decision (as Murrey said), and lots of security measures that should be in place, but the upshot is the secrecy issue is certainly a variable.

The staff can advise you best as to their particular position.
posted by pantarei70 at 7:29 AM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to say that if I were in your class and you told us "and if you know what this building is used for currently, please keep quiet about it" that would probably be *the* quickest way to get me to Google it.
posted by Ashley801 at 7:39 AM on March 30, 2010 [6 favorites]

I think that "social services offices" is vague and boring-sounding enough.
There are such offices all over most cities, doing paperwork that most people never realize needs doing.

Yes, "offices" is a bit of a dodge, but hey, presumably the shelter has an office, in which paperwork is done.

"Residential treatment or care facility" both sound like a euphemisms for drug rehab, and may invite more curiosity.
posted by desuetude at 8:10 AM on March 30, 2010

As per murray, the location of the women's shelter nearest to me, which IS supposed to be secret, is so well-known that people give directions by it. Literally, "It's just past the battered women's shelter? You know, without the sign, the secret residential location?" "Oh, right, I was confused, I thought you meant their offices downtown. No, I know exactly where the residential building is -- so the pizza place is right past it?" "Right."

If you look in the phone book or on the internet, it doesn't exist, but everyone, absolutely everyone, knows where it is anyway.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:13 AM on March 30, 2010

I think there's a difference between casual conversation on the street acknowledging that people know that this building may be a shelter versus and standing up in class giving a formal presentation that includes information which is not supposed to be 'on the record.'
posted by desuetude at 9:26 AM on March 30, 2010

If you don't feel comfortable talking about its current use because it's not common knowledge, don't. If someone else blurts that out, you can acknowledge their comment and quickly move on without confirming or denying the accuracy of the comment.
posted by Doohickie at 10:28 AM on March 30, 2010

If asked for details about the building's current use, would it be credible to lie and say you don't know all of the details? That would probably elicit less curiosity than an evasive answer.
posted by sesquipedalian at 3:08 PM on March 30, 2010

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