How volunteer movers keep victims of violence safe as they escape abusive homes
Shelter Movers helps abuse survivors reclaim belongings, restart their lives at what can be a dangerous time
This story is part of Stopping Domestic Violence, a CBC News series looking at the crisis of intimate partner violence in Canada and what can be done to end it.
Faith B. takes one last walk through the home she lovingly renovated detail by detail. The house holds her dreams of giving her two young boys safety, love and laughter. But it also echoes with her memories of living with a man who demanded they all walk on eggshells around him, who hit her and left marks and a bruise on her toddler's skin.
There's nothing left that she wants from the house. Everything is in the waiting moving truck outside. Before she locks the door for the final time and closes this dark chapter of her life, Faith walks into the kitchen — where she had the countertops lowered to match her height — and collapses into the arms of a waiting friend.
"Others tried to comfort me after and say, 'it's just stuff,' but it was so much more than that," Faith said about returning to claim her belongings. "It was thinking I failed, thinking I had disappointed so many people. But then to understand, no, there is so much more in store for us."
Faith B. — CBC has agreed to use an alias to protect her and her children — is a survivor of domestic violence. Three months earlier, she fled the house with her children and a few essentials when she found bruises on her son. Now, she's returning with the help of a new volunteer moving service to claim the rest of her belongings while her former partner, unknowing, is at work.
Moving day and the days of planning leading up to it is a particularly dangerous time for victims fleeing an abusive partner. According to experts and workers in this field, abuse is about control — and when a woman plans to leave, her abuser knows they're about to lose control.
It's a major reason why Shelter Movers was set up. The volunteer service helps keep women safe by helping co-ordinate their move, working side-by-side with them on moving day and hiring security, while picking up the costs of such a move, which can often spiral.
Since she left the house, Faith and her boys, aged two and three, have slept on the floor at a family member's home.
On this day, they will move into a new rental home in a secret location, the kids will get their beds and toys back, and the modified family of three will start a new life.
Listen to the audio documentary here:
Moves planned in fine detail
Shelter Movers started in Toronto in 2016 and also has groups working in Ottawa and Nova Scotia, with new groups forming in Waterloo, Montreal and Calgary.
Clients are referred to them from social workers, counsellors and other professionals working with victims of domestic violence.
Brian Vidler, who often takes the lead co-ordinating moves in the Vancouver area, believes the service is filling a gap. There's more demand than the volunteers can meet: Faith's move is the 102nd that Shelter Movers has done in the region since it started operating here about a year ago.
Vidler has planned Faith's move in detail.
The volunteers assemble punctually at a nondescript parking lot a few blocks away from the home. They've carpooled using a car-share service so their own licence plates won't be identifiable.
In the security briefing, Vidler makes sure everyone knows if the abuser shows up and picks a fight, everyone will walk off the job and try again later.
Vidler says abuse survivors often have to move more than once: first into a temporary shelter — or in Faith's case, a family member's home because the shelters were full — and eventually into permanent housing.
The costs of these moves add up, which can be challenging for victims who often struggle to find affordable housing and childcare, are paying to fight their ex in court, and are receiving spotty child support.
Faith, for example, is living off credit and loans from family. So, the moving truck loaded with furniture and clothes is a vital piece in restarting her life without having to shell out for everything anew.
The B.C. government offers to reimburse low-income families for moving expenses if they are escaping domestic violence, but they must provide an estimate of moving costs in advance, and multiple estimates if the government thinks it's too high.
To Vidler, that's just more paperwork and phone calls that risk exposing the victim at a time when she's already most at risk.
"You have to book a vehicle, you have to call a bunch of friends — think of all the communication," Vidler says.
"Imagine if there's an email, a voicemail, or somebody knocking on the door that triggers to the spouse that your partner's leaving, and that's when they're at their most risk of violence. So, trying to plan a move at that time is insane."
Federal government statistics show the rate at which intimate partners kill their female spouses spikes after separation. One set of figures puts a woman's risk of being killed by her separated spouse six times higher than the risk from a spouse she's still legally married to.
A new chapter
Faith's move goes down without a hitch. The volunteers slam shut the back of the yellow moving truck and drive off to help her unload at her new safe home, where she plans to make a whole new version of her dream for her children.
Ten days later, in her new home, Faith says she and the kids are slowly learning not to flinch when a toy drops on the floor. They're living with more freedom and joy. On their first day, they played hockey in the kitchen.
"That would have never happened in the old house," she said. "Then they asked for music, and we had a dance party and ate a billion snacks. Just did what we wanted to do."
There are still many struggles. She needs her ex to sign off for her son to see a counsellor who specializes in helping kids who've lived with domestic violence. She's teaching her son who loves cars the wrong name for their new vehicle so he won't accidentally give his father a clue that could be used to track them. Like many women facing abuse, she never pressed charges against her husband and has to dig through old texts and emails to prove the abuse.
Not to mention, as a single mom of two little ones, she's still sleeping on the floor beside her boys' bed as they settle into nights in their new bedroom.
But they've had family and friends visiting non-stop, people who were not welcome in the tightly controlled home she shared with her ex. Also, everything feels so much more colourful — and not just because she's bought a brightly coloured second-hand couch instead of the greys and blacks her ex demanded.
"It's like you've been living in this dark closet for so long and you think it's normal," Faith said.
"Finally, the door is busted open and it's so bright and your eyes are adjusting, but then you're like, this is so much better. And that's really what it's like."
- A previous version of this story stated Faith B.'s toddlers were left with bruises after being hit by their father. In fact, Faith B. alleges only one child had bruises and marks that clearly were not from normal toddler falls and bumps.Mar 11, 2020 12:19 PM PT