Giving Immigrant Women the Tools to Build a New Life

Giving Immigrant Women the Tools to Build a New Life

When I found out that I had to move I was so worried. Then my support worker told me about Shelter Movers. They helped me so much, they were respectful and understood my anxiety. Not only did they move my stuff, they gave me a ride to my new place and I felt like a princess.

For someone trying to escape a violent relationship, emergency shelters can be a crucial first step. But second-stage housing can be the determining factor in successfully building a new life. Second-stage housing options vary, but residents generally pay rent based on income level and stay for six to eighteen months. The type of accommodation ranges from self-contained suites to single rooms with communal facilities.

Harmony House, a community partner of Shelter Movers Vancouver, is one of Surrey’s few second-stage transition houses. Located in a residential neighbourhood, it has one self-contained suite and six single rooms with shared facilities. Like most second-stage housing, the facility is never not at full capacity, according to Harmony House’s Coordinator, Neena Randhawa.

With a multilingual staff and a culturally-sensitive environment, Harmony House specializes in helping immigrant women, who face myriad challenges when escaping violence. Those challenges can be overwhelming for a newcomer to Canada with limited English skills and no family support.

As part of the Surrey-based Progressive Intercultural Community Services Society (PICS), a large Surrey-based multi-faceted non-profit, Harmony House is able to directly connect clients to a wide variety of programs including employment assistance, healthcare, and language instruction. With no overnight or weekend staff onsite, and by living in a communal space, Harmony House residents learn to work together and gain independence. “The women really support each other,” notes Randhawa. For instance, if one resident with children needs to do errands, another might stay home and take care of the children..

As with all organizations, the pandemic meant upheaval for existing processes. Overnight, English classes and support groups went online, greatly impacting the women, many of whom already felt isolated. Additional staff were hired to make sure that women were coping with the lack of in person social activities. “It’s really important for them to see the staff,” Randhawa says. “Back home these women would have the whole village [supporting them], but here, they’re new to Canada and lots of them have no support.” With the pandemic receding, most programs are now back to operating in person and Harmony House has the added advantage of being part of a large organization like PICS so services for clients can be easily and quickly arranged. “You just pick up the phone, call the PICS office, and get the person the help they need, ” explains Randhawa.

While there’s no set deadline for residents to find their own housing, most Harmony House clients move out within six to eight months and continue to work with an outreach worker to build a solid support network. Learning to navigate rental housing in Canada takes on extra urgency in today’s tight market. Particularly important is teaching clients their rights and responsibilities as a tenant and what the landlords can and cannot do, which is where Harmony House’s team provides crucial guidance. “We have a great outreach team,” says Randhawa, “and we really try to find housing for women in their own community so that they’re near their doctor or counsellor.” But when that’s not possible – she recently helped a client move to Richmond – the continued relationship between the client and staff is vital.

Partnership with Shelter Movers Vancouver

Randhawa worked with Shelter Movers Vancouver (SMV) in her previous position at Richmond’s Nova Transition House and was happy to continue the relationship at Harmony House. “The service was so practical and so needed,“ she says. Randhawa notes that the SMV volunteers are very respectful – “they come with the lens of trauma,” and an understanding of what clients might be experiencing.

Giving women the opportunity to retain some of their belongings while they build a new life can be a huge emotional boost. Thanks to the partnership between Harmony House and SMV, clients are able to bring some small personal items. “Having a safe place where they can have something special to them is so important,” says Randhawa.
Perhaps a former Harmony House resident sums it up best:
“When I found out that I had to move I was so worried. Then my support worker told me about Shelter Movers. They helped me so much, they were respectful and understood my anxiety. Not only did they move my stuff, they gave me a ride to my new place and I felt like a princess.”

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