Money was tight for Francine Bissonnette in 2016, when she was thinking of leaving her common-law partner.
He was abusive. Controlling. But they lived together, and the idea of starting over seemed unfathomable. She was reluctant to ask her family for help, for fear of putting them at risk.
“She was afraid,” her daughter, Genevieve Caumartin, remembers. “She was 62 years old. And she was very afraid of losing everything. Not only furniture, but the pictures of her grandmother, her mother. Everything that she held dear.”
So she stayed. And he killed her.
“Why don’t you just leave?” is a question those who have experienced domestic violence continue to be asked. It’s a complicated dilemma faced by countless people – the majority of them women – across Canada each year. In addition to many intangible barriers, there are everyday physical things that can keep women tethered to violent relationships. Starting over is not just difficult, it’s expensive.
Ms. Caumartin’s mother’s killer was sentenced to 12 years in prison for manslaughter. Shortly after his trial, Ms. Caumartin learned about Shelter Movers, a Toronto-based non-profit organization that offers packing, storage and moving services, free of both charge and judgment, for people who need to flee violent home situations. She reached out to them. Now, three years later, she’s the organization’s Montreal chapter lead.
While she had the personal experience of losing her mother to violence, she had no connections to the anti-violence sector when she agreed to take the reins.
“I’m not a community worker,” she said. “I’m a software developer.”
But lack of experience has never been a problem for Shelter Movers.
Marc Hull-Jacquin didn’t have any when he founded the organization in 2016. He was 37 at the time, living in Toronto and working in the energy sector.
The statistics nagged at him. A woman is killed almost every other day in Canada, and women fleeing domestic violence are most at risk when attempting to leave home. Mr. Hull-Jacquin said he had money and time and was growing increasingly uninspired by his corporate day job.
“I was acknowledging the enormous privilege that I get to enjoy, and I was acknowledging the home that I can provide my children, and I just felt a need to help other families be able to provide a safe and loving home for their kids,” he said.
“As a man, I knew that I likely couldn’t volunteer inside a women’s shelter. That wouldn’t be appropriate. But I can lift heavy things and I can drive a truck, and I can find the time on evenings and weekends to go out into the community, and I felt that that was my way at that moment.”
Though the organization’s mandate was simple, the demand for its services, he quickly realized, was immense. He began to grow the
through partnerships. Within a year and a half, running it became his full-time job.
Shelter Movers now co-ordinates with caseworkers, usually through women’s shelters, to help plan moves. The organization relies on government grants and donations – not only monetary donations but also volunteers and in-kind contributions from storage, moving and security companies. (Security guards accompany movers, and police will also attend if a move is considered especially risky.)
Ms. Caumartin, too, quickly discovered that there were many others willing to help. Her Montreal Shelter Movers chapter launched in September with a roster of more than 100 volunteers. In the months since, it has done more than 85 moves.
Shelter Movers also operates in five other regions: Ottawa, Greater Toronto, Nova Scotia, Vancouver and Waterloo. Across the country, with a team of 28 employees and 1,200 volunteers, the organization does an average of 126 moves each month.
Tanisha Sri Bhaggiyadatta, the senior manager of resident services at The Redwood women’s shelter in Toronto, said her organization relies heavily on the services offered by Shelter Movers.
“I can’t think of a family that we’ve moved that hasn’t utilized the services of Shelter Movers,” she said. The assistance with moving, she added, is crucial to helping women and families transition out of shelters.
“They are very flexible … the mandate is coming from the people that they’re serving,” she said.
Shaoli Choudhury is the manager of YWCA Vancouver’s transitional housing program, which provides apartments where women and families stay, on average for about a year, while they search for permanent housing. She said Shelter Movers is becoming a routine part of the process, whenever a resident is moving in or out.
“It takes that part of a woman’s journey in fleeing abuse that few people think about … and they make it this insanely smooth, sensitive, [non]-judgmental way for women to get to safety,” Ms. Choudhury said. “It’s such a hopeful organization to work with.”
Years into a national affordable housing crisis, Shelter Movers’ storage periods are lasting longer and longer. What used to be weeks-long stays at emergency shelters are often now months long, because there is simply nowhere for residents to go.
“We will hold their stuff for well over a year, in some cases, before they can find a place to go out of shelter,” Mr. Hull-Jacquin said.
Another pattern Mr. Hull-Jacquin has noticed over the years is that Shelter Movers will move the same woman multiple times, or the organization will return to the same man’s address multiple times to move different women. Both scenarios have driven home for Mr. Hull-Jacquin how difficult cycles of abuse can be to break.
Since the start of pandemic-related lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, police forces across the country have seen increases in reports of domestic and intimate partner violence.
Mr. Hull-Jacquin said he is hopeful that after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted more men will be inspired to volunteer, helping to interrupt cycles of domestic violence.
The stakes are, after all, sometimes life and death. Ms. Caumartin said she believes a service like Shelter Movers would have been helpful to her mother. There can be shame, she said, in asking family for assistance with a move, because people in violent relationships already feel shame over their circumstances.
“She didn’t really want to reach out to the family,” Ms. Caumartin said. “If she could have reached out to a service like Shelter Movers, it could have saved her life.”
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