Violence against women has been on the rise throughout the pandemic, which means Shelter Movers, a national charitable organization with a chapter in Ottawa, has been handling a record number of requests to help victims relocate to a safe environment.
“It’s been busy,” said Wendy Mitchell, director of Shelter Movers Ottawa, which provides free moving and storage services for women fleeing violence.
Founded in October 2017, it took the volunteer-based organization a little longer than three years to reach its 500 move milestone in December 2020. Less than 12 months later, it completed another 250 moves, working by referral only with its community partners and agencies.
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Social isolation and economic hardships have both been factors driving the increase of domestic violence, said Mitchell, adding that the organization has seen a spike in requests for services from victims, not so much during the lockdowns but after they’re over.
“Everytime the isolation rules eased, we saw an increase, because they had no way or no respite or no time to be able to figure out how to flee when they were stuck in the house and weren’t allowed to go anywhere,” she said.
Shelter Movers Ottawa relies on volunteers. It has 350 of them. Mitchell has recently hired a part-time operations manager and volunteer services manager. Before, it was just her.
“We have a pretty incredible team,” said Mitchell of the staff and volunteers’ ability to handle each situation as it comes up. “We have lots of conversations, talking with our referral partners and figuring out how we can help.”
The organization would like to branch out to rural areas, where there are fewer social services available. It also continues to work with neighbouring Shelter Movers chapters to help women relocate to such nearby cities as Montreal and Toronto.
The organization has benefited from a rapid response grant from the Ottawa Community Foundation, as well as support from the City of Ottawa through its social services relief fund backed by senior levels of government.
Meanwhile, the Distress Centre of Ottawa and Region has seen its share of pandemic pandemonium. There were days, earlier on, when phones were figuratively ringing off the hook.
In a normal year, the call centre answers about 50,000 calls. “This year, we’re looking at between 65,000 and 70,000,” said executive director Charles Laframboise.
Calls are predominantly answered by trained volunteer responders who receive support by paid staff. Due to COVID-related public health restrictions, the organization introduced new technology and training so that calls could be rerouted to the responders’ homes.
“It’s been tough, it’s been challenging,” said Laframboise. “When you’re moving so quickly to introduce new technology, there are going to be bumps along the way. We had to make some adjustments throughout but, overall, more calls than ever have been answered and it’s been a great effort, not just from our staff but also our responders.”
The centre has also worked with other nonprofit organizations focused on issues surrounding mental health and substance use to develop virtual counselling sessions.
“If there was a need for a client to get additional help, we could refer them to organizations or agencies in town that were offering mental health and addiction counselling by phone or Zoom meetings,” Lafromboise said.
The centre has some responders who have asked to work out of the call centre again, and is planning to adopt a hybrid model of managing calls from home and from the centre in early 2022. The number of volunteers grew during the pandemic, given that the nature of the work is contactless, said Laframboise.
“We had a much higher number of applications for volunteering than we’ve ever had,” he said.
Grants from United Way East Ontario and the Ottawa Community Foundation, as well as public donations, all helped the Distress Centre adapt to the changing and challenging world around it, said Laframboise.
“We put out some calls for some financial help and the community responded big time,” he said. We’re truly humbled by the response that we’ve had.”