Find the courage, they'll lend a hand

At least five volunteers per move are required, and all receive necessary training. 

People love to muse about what they would grab if their house was on fire to kickstart conversations in self-reflection. But if your whole life was on fire and you didn't have the luxury of time. What would you do?

Many things going through the mind of a woman deciding to flee an abusive situation. She’s going to make a run for it. Her abuser is gone, or maybe just asleep. It's her and the kid. After consideration for her physical safety and that of her children, what should she grab? A purse? A toutou? A blanket? Anything at all?

Every day, thousands of survivors face the prospect of losing everything they own if they flee, which can slow their resolve to leave dangerous situations, and slow their escape.

But there is help.

Established in 2016, Shelter Movers is a national, volunteer-powered charitable organization that provides moving and storage services at no cost to survivors of abuse. A Montreal chapter was launched in the fall of 2020 as the city and province was knee-deep in the pandemic.

Isolation and economic hardship imposed by various governments’ pandemic measures have significantly increased instances of abuse and violence against women in Canada. In 2021, a woman or girl was killed every other day in Canada, most often by an intimate partner or family member. According to a University of Sherbrooke study, a stunning 22.5% of women in the Montreal region were victims of intimate partner violence.

That’s almost one in four.

“We know from research that one of the barriers of leaving is the risk of financial impact,” says Shelter Movers’ Montreal chapter director Renata Fuchs Militzer, adding the logistics, the emotional impact, especially for kids, of leaving absolutely everything behind is painful. “Survivors will often talk about starting from scratch. It's one of those barriers, to replace everything because it's a financial burden.” Add to that the fact that abusers often control the finances and survivors are starting with nothing in their bank accounts and must buy everything, again.

Working with more than 50 community partners, including women's shelters and other services that support their work, the volunteer-driven operation receives referrals and begins with a risk assessment.

Research shows that survivors are most at risk of escalated violence or even homicide when they decide to leave, or when they go back to retrieve their belongings, and there are various risk levels: An urgent exit is high risk, leaving an abusive home for a safe location. A medium-high risk escorted move returns with clients to their home to retrieve their belongings. Then there's a low-risk resettlement moving clients and their belongings from storage to a new home.

Police support is required during high risk moves involving no-contact orders, bail conditions, history of excessive violence or by request. Security personnel are on hand for lower risk moves.

Working with police and private security partners, with few exceptions, clients are there, (except if a crime was committed in the space or if it's difficult to re-enter). “We go in and help them select and pack what needs to go.” The organization relies on agreements with local police and companies that can provide no-cost or reduced-cost security. “Police can't always be there, but they try.”

A complicating factor is that shelters generally have a one or two-bag policy, only allowing a woman to bring small things. That's why Shelter Movers also provides vital storage services. If a woman goes to a shelter, a worker will contact the group who will arrange to go back and take things out. “But the housing crisis we've seen means victims are spending more time in shelters and that's impacting shelters quite a bit,” says Fuchs Militzer. “We put things in storage as long as it's needed, be it a year or more.” The idea that there is help, that their belongings are intact, can offer great peace of mind for many who find themselves at this frightening crossroads.

Shelter Movers coordinates everything from the movers, drivers and security, to vehicles, storage, pet fostering and language interpreters, last year averaging 14 moves per month. “We are aiming for 16, but demand is much higher than that.”

The need is soaring. “We're in a squeeze. There's so much demand and a wait list. We are fully booked until August.” The two months’ wait can be excruciating, and she fears that some clients will end up cancelling. “We don't know what they will do. Will they go back? On their own?”

The only way to shorten that would be with more volunteer resources. “It's not just moving, it's coordination. It takes about 40 to 50 hours of volunteer work per move. The model is developed. We just need the hands.” Indeed, from movers and packers to drivers and administrative support, all hands are needed on deck, she says, in addition to donations to help defray operational costs of fuel, truck rentals, storage and security.

To request a move: 1-855-203-6252 (ext. 5) info.montreal@sheltermovers.com

For more information about Shelter Movers or to make a donation, visit https://www.sheltermovers.com/montreal/

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