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Sam Stiles, Operations Manager at Shelter Movers Ottawa, closes a storage unit containing clients' belongings, in Ottawa, in June, 2021.Justin Tang/The Globe and Mail

A Toronto-based non-profit organization that offers free moving and storage services to women fleeing domestic violence will expand its services to the Prairies, beginning in Alberta, after a multimillion-dollar funding injection from the federal government.

But in the midst of a housing crisis, with chronically full shelters and a lack of affordable housing, some experts in the anti-violence sector say the funding doesn’t address the real issue of shelter and housing. Moving services, they say, are only useful for clients who have somewhere to go.

The $3-million investment was announced recently by Minister of Women and Gender Equality Marci Ien. It will be distributed over four years, and will allow Shelter Movers to open chapters first in Alberta, and then later in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

The non-profit organization was started in 2016 by Marc Hull-Jacquin, in response to distressing rates of violence against women in Canada. On average, a woman is killed by an intimate partner every six days in Canada – and women experiencing violence face the greatest risk when attempting to leave home.

After initially launching in the Greater Toronto Area in 2016, Shelter Movers was identified by the federal government as a “promising practice” in 2018, and received $780,000 over the past four years to test the model and assess its replicability across the country.

The organization has since opened chapters in Ottawa, Waterloo, Ont., Halifax, Moncton and Vancouver. Today, with a network of 28 employees and more than 1,200 volunteers, it averages 135 moves a month, and is approaching its 5,000th move.

With the expansion into the Prairies, it is hoping to double its capacity over the next three years.

“We’re excited for the opportunity to grow,” Mr. Hull-Jacquin said in an interview. “We’re projecting 300-330 moves, three years from now, per month.”

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Ms. Ien said the organization has “a proven track record of success. We know that they’re changing lives.” She also announced $3-million in funding for crisis hotlines in Alberta to “ensure that there is someone at the other end of the phone when someone is in need.”

But the province’s council of women’s shelters say what’s most needed are housing subsidies and shelter beds.

“Moving and storage – while indeed helpful services to have access to – fall behind more pressing priorities that include the ongoing capacity crisis in shelters,” Jan Reimer, executive director of the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters, said in a public response to the funding announcement.

“Alberta’s gender-based violence service providers need funding now – before more individuals are referred to them with calls to 211, and before organizations can move people to shelters where there is no space, or out of shelters when there is little affordable housing for them to move to.”

She said front-line staff are “buckling” under the demand for services, warning it’s not feasible to take on more referrals without additional support.

Alberta women’s shelters received more than 25,000 calls last year from people requesting a bed, according to data from the council.

Of those, close to 7,000 women and children were able to secure an emergency shelter bed. Another 631 found a second-stage or transitional shelter bed. But more than 17,000 had to be turned away because of a lack of capacity.

“The whole system is interconnected,” Ms. Reimer said, noting a lack of affordable housing has created bottlenecks in the shelter system. “If they can’t find housing, they’re staying longer – so fewer women can come in.”

As the federal government continues to roll out its national plan on gender-based violence, Ms. Reimer said it is imperative that front-line services are consulted.

Ms. Ien’s office said the funding for both Shelter Movers and the crisis lines comes from gender-based violence program funding, allocated under the 2021 budget, and is not part of the national plan.

In response to the Alberta shelter council’s concerns, Shelter Movers said their service exists “to fill a critical gap” in the sector, and that they have been “welcomed and integrated into the existing network of support agencies” in each of their existing chapters so far.

“We understand the challenges that the gender-based violence sector is facing. And we are encouraged that the government of Canada is committing much-needed funding and attention to this issue,” Mr. Hull-Jacquin said.

Johise Namwira, spokesperson for Ms. Ien, acknowledged in an e-mail that there is more work to do, “but we are moving in the right direction.”

Alberta’s parliamentary secretary for status of women, Tanya Fir, said it is vital to ensure there is housing available for families escaping violence. She pointed to the province’s recent announcement of $55-million for affordable housing projects.

“Supporting victims of abuse will not be the same for every individual or family, and that is why we want to ensure we have supports available that will meet every unique need.”

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