Policy debates on shelter for women have focused on family structure, gender roles and the importance of shelter in women’s economic development. They emphasize the need for shelter that is generally effective and empowering for women. Although valuable, these general policy proposals are often unable to account for the particular situations in specific cultural contexts in which family structure, roles and economic development are reshaped by women’s migration, and where cultural mandates for, and family‐based control of, women’s shelter are re‐articulated. Through a study of 12 working women’s hostels in Bangalore, India, which includes a survey of 126 residents and 4 focus groups, this article analyses the functions that hostels serve for women and explores the aspects of hostels that are effective and empowering. While only partially effective and empowering in ways that are specified within the current debates, hostels offer a significant policy opportunity to help women both expand their personal, social, economic and political universe without losing contact with the familiar and nurturing networks of family, and gain autonomy over their shelter and lives. The article discusses how hostels can provide a stepping stone for policy and programmatic interventions toward decent, secure and empowering shelter for women.