a memoir about being homeless during Covid

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I have been a registered pharmacy technician since 2013, working at a health care centre in the northwest corner of Toronto. Several of our units treat Covid-19 patients, which means that I was among the fortunate few to get vaccinated back in January. I work in the pharmacy in the basement. A doctor writes a prescription and sends it via computer to a pharmacist on the main floor, who reviews the order and transmits it to us. We fill IV bags, count tablets, package orders and take them up to the unit. The job was always a relay race; during the pandemic, it’s become way harder. When I’m taking drugs to the Covid floors, the process is elaborate. I place the medications in zip-lock bags and place those in a plastic bucket. Then I wipe down my face shield and slide it inside a large zip-lock bag to keep it from getting infected. After I take the elevator up to a patient floor, I put the shield on and deliver the medications to the patient cart. I repeat the sanitizing process for each of the units I visit. Then I hurry back to the basement. At my busiest, I’ll do as many as 10 deliveries per hour. It’s important, exhausting work, and the stakes are high. If I make a mistake, the results could be devastating.

After my shift ends, I want nothing more than to drive home and crash on my couch. But I can’t. I’ve been homeless since February of 2020, just before the pandemic really touched down in Ontario. So after I clock out, I drive my 2017 Dodge Caravan—with its cracked windshield and wonky transmission—to the parking lot of a nearby retirement home. If I have $4 to spare, I’ll stop at Tim Hortons on the way and pick up some chili and a bun. If I don’t, I heat up Campbell’s Chunky on a plug-in stovetop. If I’m out of soup, I can fall back on peanut butter sandwiches. I finish a jar each week.

I settle into the driver seat and video-call my three kids—the twins are seven and my baby is five—who live with their mother just west of London, Ontario. My data plan is basic, so I can’t talk for long, although that’s not always by choice: my kids are busy and not always up for chatting with Dad. I know that I can always reach my best friend, Jay, who lives in New York. He sends surprise Amazon deliveries—a lunchbox stove, a T-shirt of my favourite comedian, an Old Navy gift card when he saw how tattered my work clothes were—to the hospital and uploads movies to our shared account, which help me ward off boredom and, sometimes, despair.

I watch a movie or show until my eyelids grow heavy, then I crawl between the bucket seats to my bed: a yoga mat stacked on top of three sleeping bags, all covered by a down comforter and a quilt. I crack the windows for ventilation, even in winter, and place an empty Gatorade bottle close by in case I need to relieve myself at night. I stretch out my achy legs, pull my fleece hoodie over my head and drift off to sleep.

MacFarlane at work, preparing an IV for a patient in the early days of the pandemic

I thought I knew what homelessness looked like. It’s the people in the shelters and encampments. The guy sprawled over the sewer vents, trying to stay warm. The poor souls I used to give a few bucks to whenever I could. But those are just the visible homeless. I’m part of a much larger contingent. We’re the hidden homeless, the folks moving into a friend’s spare bedroom, couch-surfing, or huddling inside cars until we can just figure things out. Usually, we do. After all, an estimated one in every 12 Canadians is technically homeless at least once in their lives. Sometimes that statistic gives me hope; other times it does the opposite. It’s discouraging to know there are probably way more of us—men and women exactly like me—out there now thanks to this miserable pandemic.

For obvious reasons, the hidden homeless population is hard to calculate, but a 2016 study by Homeless Hub estimated that, on any given night, 85,000 Canadians are homeless in some way. There are 35,000 countable, visible homeless and another 50,000 others like me. Some 1.5 million households are at risk of entering one category or the other right now. As the pandemic rages on, however, the true number could be as much as 15 per cent higher than we think, according to some experts. Once Covid-related government support and eviction moratoriums expire, that number could climb rapidly.

I’m grateful to be a full-time essential worker, with a decent salary, but that of course means I don’t qualify for government funds. I make $32 per hour, about $5,250 a month, $63,000 a year. On paper, that’s more than the average Torontonian makes. But after deductions, taxes, union dues and child support (which amount to roughly $1,200 a month), I take “home” (to my minivan) $2,000 a month. That’s just over $500 a week. From that, I subtract my basic living expenses. And what’s left over is just not enough to make rent. With no savings, I can’t even afford a deposit.

Sometimes my youngest asks, “Why can’t you get a house?” I don’t know how to explain my bad decisions, or credit scores, security deposits and leases, to a five-year-old who thinks a house is something he can sketch with crayons or build out of Lego. I try, anyway. He inevitably follows up with “But why?” and I try to hide my shame. He’s right to be confused. Just a few years ago, I was going to wineries with friends, hosting backyard barbecues. I was building forts with my kids out of our couch cushions. Homeless? Me? Never.

I grew up in working-class Schenectady, New York, in a creaky old house. My mom was a nurse at one hospital and my dad was a security guard at another. Mom managed the finances, not because she made more money, but because my dad—a happy, likable guy with his share of demons—would’ve squandered it on booze and lottery tickets. They fought constantly. My older sister and I used to beg them to get a divorce. But Mom was sick with cancer, in and out of treatment and surgery for eight years, and she was scared of being alone.

I dropped out of school in the middle of Grade 12. I was never comfortable in class, always acting out. I didn’t fit in and I didn’t want to be there, so I became the class clown. I was sarcastic and always mouthing off. Why should I write a five-page essay when I could give a good answer in three paragraphs? When I was 18, my mom died. It scarred me in ways I’m still realizing now.

I got my GED right after I dropped out, and I got a job at the hospital where my dad worked, starting in the kitchen, then in distribution, then in laundry. My dad knew some guys in the pharmacy and helped me get an interview. In a way, it was a parting gift: in 2000, he died from an alcoholism-related illness. My life became even more of a mess, and I landed in therapy, where I learned a lot about myself, including the fact that I had general and social anxiety disorders. It sounds contradictory, but I’m great with numbers and terrible with finances. My dad was the same way.

Like him, I married someone with far more money sense than I had, a Canadian expat I met in high school. My volatile early life and my parents’ death left me yearning for what I’d always lacked: stability, harmony and love. I never wanted money or a fancy job. I just wanted kids, a house and a wife.

I moved to Toronto in 2007. We married two years later and in 2013 had twins—a girl and a boy, the perfect package. The next year, we finally won a bidding war and moved into a townhouse in Mississauga. The birth of our second son was a bonus. By the time I was 35, my bucket list was fully checked off.

But the warning signs were there, even if I didn’t want to acknowledge them. The marriage was far from functional, and for that I share the blame. Tensions boiled over in October 2016, which led to a messy separation. She took the car and moved to the London area, to be near her family. I loved our house and what it represented: so many Christmas mornings, birthdays, storytimes before clicking off the light. I tried to keep up with mortgage payments, but I also had to cover the cost of a minivan, my legal fees and—for a period in which I had sole custody—child care to cover me while I was at work. Later, as the kids spent time with their mom, I started driving Uber for a few hours after every shift at the hospital. But I had never handled so many bills on my own before, and within two years, I was $40,000 in the hole. Creditors filled my voicemail. The trill of my phone triggered anxiety, and if the number was unknown, I could suffer a full-on panic attack. I declined almost all calls and stopped opening my mail. As a result—a painful, deeply regrettable mistake I’ll live with for the rest of my life—I missed our final court date and my wife got custody.

Reuniting with his dog, Puppy, during a visit home to New York in 2009

I did retain weekend custody, but that meant driving 200 kilometres to pick them up. Still, I rarely missed an opportunity. My kids were all that mattered to me.

I realized I couldn’t keep the house. After I sold it, I put the profit toward my debts and was left with just $10,000. Then, in January 2019, I was pulled over with expired insurance and fined nearly $6,000. The timing was awful. I’d just paid first and last on a three-bedroom house, big enough for me and the kids, in Grimsby, just west of Hamilton.

I kept up with rent for most of the year, but things began to spiral and I soon fell behind. My landlords, a couple in their 40s, put up with it for a while. Eventually, we met to figure out a plan. They knew I had a decent job; why couldn’t I cover rent? I explained my situation. The husband asked me if I was going to make more money. I told him my minivan was already in disrepair, which ruled out Uber. I looked into shifts at shipping warehouses like Amazon, but they were only hiring for overnight shifts. And trust me, you don’t want your pharmacy technician dispensing orders on three hours of sleep.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “but we can’t keep losing money on this property.” They said they would forgive my debt if I moved out on February 1, 2020. “Do you have somewhere to go?” they asked. I had lost touch with the friends I’d made in Toronto after the separation. A few of them were understandably loyal to my ex. Others were initially supportive, but I had driven them away with my trainwreck of a life. “I’ll have to live in my car,” I said.

I tried to postpone that inevitability. I searched for an apartment, but I had no money for a deposit. Finally, the day came. I dragged my kids’ bedroom furniture down three storeys, one step at a time. It was pure torture. I packed up their toys and clothes, breaking down into tears again and again, sometimes screaming at myself. I drove to a storage locker and unloaded everything. Last of all, I removed the seats and the kids’ car seats from the back of the van.

I drove to a quiet lot nearby, lay down my bedding in the back of the van and crawled in. I’d been holding on to the fact that no matter how bad things got for me, I would always have my kids and they would have me. Divorce couldn’t sever that relationship. But lying there, looking out at the dark sky, watching snow fall, I realized that I couldn’t afford the gas to go and visit them. The van was quiet but for the sound of my breathing. I was struck with an abysmal, existential loneliness I still can’t shake. Life, I figured, couldn’t get much worse.

Then the pandemic hit.

I kept my new reality to myself for a few nights, but then I called my buddy Jay, in upstate New York, just to check in and hear a friendly voice. He had a sense that things were unravelling for me, but I didn’t want to tell him that I was living in my car. We talked about random stuff, and he could tell something was up—I sounded flat. He pulled it out of me. I asked him to call or text me every three days to make sure I wasn’t dead. It wasn’t that I was afraid of getting hurt by someone, or that I would harm myself. I have high cholesterol, and I feared that if anything happened to me, no one would know. Jay now calls daily, sometimes more than once, and we often talk for hours at a time. I don’t know what I’d do without him.

The day after I told Jay, I told my colleague Tom. We’d walked by my minivan on lunch break and he noticed it was stuffed with sleeping bags and groceries. “Tim, are you making a tent?” he asked. Tom knew about my money problems. He’d front me $20 now and again. I’d even told him I might have to live in my car for a while. He obviously didn’t believe it.

MacFarlane says having a car to sleep in sometimes makes him feel like “the Bill Gates of homelessness,” but the cost of that comfort is significant. Roughly half of his take-home pay goes toward car payments, vehicle insurance, gas and “home repair”

I had googled “where to shower in Toronto.” The options within my budget were a shelter or a Milton truck stop. I was terrified of having bad body odour. I asked Tom if I stank. “I don’t think so,” he said. The next morning, he took me aside. He put his hand on the back of my coat and spoke softly. “I talked to someone in the hospital. There’s a shower that the doctors use,” he said. “Your access card should get you in.” The warm water—I can’t put it into words. It was magic.

By mid-March, the pandemic was no longer some faraway theoretical problem. When the hospital started enacting stricter social distancing and sanitization policies, I was scared they’d lock the showers. Thankfully, they didn’t, but every other part of being homeless became much harder.

I learned that reliable Wi-Fi, electrical outlets and warm places to sit were critical to my mental well-being. I would sometimes spend hours at a Tim Hortons, charging my phone, reading the news online, sipping a coffee and just enjoying being among people, like a normal member of society.

Then the first lockdown hit, and my world shrunk dramatically. With nowhere to go and nothing to do, I had no stories to tell my colleagues at work. No amusing encounters to talk about, no opinion on last night’s game, no sense of what they’re all streaming on Netflix. I was in isolation within isolation.

It’s incredible how much you design your life around bowel movements when you’re homeless. That concern dictates where I park for the night and how many nuts and grains I can safely eat. (The first time I took a dump in a cardboard box I vowed it would be my last.) For the first few months of the pandemic, I could easily locate porta-potties on construction sites. But over time, possibly as more and more people have joined my ranks, I’ve noticed those toilets are usually locked up. I started to rely on grocery stores with unlocked bathrooms. That’s where I developed an eye for others like me. I can pick up on telltale signs—people carrying overloaded backpacks, wearing frayed shirts and tattered shoes, like mine are now. I recognize those people, even hidden behind masks, and I assume they recognize me, too.

At least the pandemic gave me some cover with my children. It made my absence semi-normal. In a way, I wasn’t different from a lot of long-distance parents unable to make birthdays or take their kids over spring break because of travel restrictions. They were just like every other kid they knew calling a relative who used to visit regularly.

But first, I had to tell my kids I was living in the van. I always try to talk to them the way I do everyone else: honest and real. If I can’t give them my time, at least I can give them the truth. So when my twins asked me why I didn’t have a place to stay, I told it straight: “I don’t have enough money to afford a place, just like I don’t have enough money to take you for the weekend.”

I watched the information register on their faces, and then, just as quickly, wash right off. There was no judgment, no pity. They understood what I was saying. Then they moved on.

The question still comes up from time to time, and more often the longer I’m absent. I try to reinforce the fact that although I don’t put them to bed at night or make them breakfast anymore, I love them more than anything in this world; that they didn’t do anything wrong; that they’re not the reason their dad sleeps in his car.

By the end of April, I started to understand how expensive homelessness can be, especially if your salary disqualifies you for low-income services. Of my $500 in “take-home” cash each week, a little less than half goes toward car payments, vehicle insurance, gas and “home repair.” Food and toiletries cost $500 a month. Storage is $225. While having a car that I can drive anywhere I want, heat up and sleep inside makes me feel like the Bill Gates of homelessness, the cost of that comfort is significant.

Do I make bad purchases? Honestly, no. If I’ve been surviving off peanut butter, on payday I might splurge on a bag of jerky and a hot pizza, only to regret it later when I can’t afford gas. Impulsivity is a common symptom of ADHD, but I can truly say that I’ve never been more responsible with my money than I have been this past year.

My only luxury, if you can call it that, is a $65 motel stay every second Saturday. I stop at a laundromat on the way, and then from the moment I check in, I’m a whirl of activity. I iron and fold my clothes. I race to make myself presentable for the next two weeks, shaving my head and face. I scrub my few dishes with a bar of soap, and I take stock of my food and toiletries. I refill water bottles for my cooler. I extract maximum pleasure out of the unlimited Wi-Fi, coffee and cable. Before checkout on Sunday morning, I have a hot shower and fill up my thermos with coffee. Then I get back in my car and try to hang on to the sensations for as long as I can: the softness of the mattress, the permeating warmth of the room, the privacy of a windowless door.

After all my expenses, I’m left with about $25 per week in discretionary spending. I would of course love to spend it on my kids, but that doesn’t even come close to the cost of a 400-kilometre round trip. To rent a decent motel with three beds and a kitchenette—so I can stock it with their favourite snacks, and maybe some pancake mix like old times—is $110. And so seeing my kids isn’t just financially challenging. It’s impossible.

Instead, I put that money toward my data plan—I pay $60 a month so that at least we can see each other’s faces. But as everyone knows by now, virtual is no substitute for the real thing. Going months without hugging my kids is indescribably painful. For a long time, the lockscreen image on my phone was a picture of my kids piled on my lap, but I had to swap it out. It was too agonizing to bear.

In normal times, a guy like me picked up restaurant and bar shifts, but there aren’t a lot of dishes to wash or glasses to fill right now. I managed to find a few handyman jobs before the first lockdown, but soon no one wanted to welcome a stranger into their bubble. Thankfully, a lady hired me for a bit of basic landscaping. I would have loved to drive for Uber again, but to fix the brakes and transmission on the minivan would cost at least $400, and I can’t afford that. Not to mention I had no seats, and all my stuff was in the back.

I have to be very intentional whenever I drive—Is this somewhere I need to go?—but if I can spare it, I spend the weekend in Grimsby. It’s still home, at least in my mind. I park in a quiet lot off the QEW, the midpoint between my storage unit and my old apartment. Being there allows me to relax, to hide and feel connected to my past.

Last summer, I drove by my old apartment. Happy memories came rushing back, followed by immense sadness. The same thing happens when I roll up the door to my storage unit. I try not to look at the bunk beds, the bike chariot I used to pull the kids around in, or the toys they’ve probably outgrown.

The loneliness is heavy. I haven’t made many friends living in my car, though I’ve tried. After a few nights sleeping in Grimsby, I started to notice the same red minivan parked across the lot. It had tinted windows that I envied all summer long. I thought that whoever was in there might be just as lonely as me. We could commiserate, share tips about where to warm up, where to find toilets. We could make a pact to look out for thieves or vandals. I pulled up next to the passenger side and waited for his window to roll down. On closer inspection, his minivan was missing rim covers and was pockmarked with rust. The man inside looked like a tradesman in his late 50s, rugged but not unkempt.

“Hey,” I said, “do you sleep in your car?”

“Sometimes,” he replied coolly.

“Oh, okay,” I said awkwardly. “I was just saying that because I live in my car, too.”

He didn’t respond, just looked at me, aloof. Maybe I was too blunt and tactless, or maybe I should have had a better opening, but it was obvious he wasn’t looking for a friend. I still see the minivan when I’m in Grimsby, but we haven’t said a word to each other since. Sometimes I wonder if he’s my future self.

I had slightly better luck making friends on Kijiji, of all places. (Postings for handyman jobs have become scarce on there. Lately, I’ve noticed that straight-up pleas for help are becoming more common. Search the word “desperate” and a slew of agonizing posts appear—people like me who are down on their luck.) Last March, I posted anonymously, asking for help with food and gas. A young guy who had just moved from Saskatchewan needed company as much as I needed gas. He came by with a full jerry can, which he let me keep, ordered a pizza and smoked a joint with me.

A former social worker named Norm gave me some money and had me over for dinner at his house, which he shares with disabled people he’s hired to support. He offered to let me crash on his couch when the people he looks after weren’t staying over, and I took him up on it. He sent me to my car with a bag of canned goods and ramen noodles. I was so grateful. He also put a hotel room on his credit card for me a couple of times. I’ve tried to repay him with yard work, but he just asks me to pay it forward, if that time ever comes.

All those acts of kindness help, but what I really want is time with my kids. That happened, briefly, in August. Jay called with some good news.

“Remember Tommy?” he asked. Back in my mid-20s, I decided to buy my pot in bulk to save money over the long run. I handed Tommy $1,200, and he ran off with it. But now he was trying to straighten out his life after serving a prison sentence. When he found out I was homeless, he wanted to pay me back “plus interest.”

“I have $2,000 for you,” said Jay. “What’s that in Canadian?”

More than I’d handled in a long time. I could hardly breathe.

“Tim, please, bank it,” he said.

“I can’t,” I told him. “I need to see my kids. And I have to get an oil change and fix up my van a little.” He disagreed. Jay thought the more I invested in the van—small comforts like an electric fan and reflective window shades—the more permanent my situation would become. “You’re building a home,” he said. “You’re getting complacent.”

But Jay isn’t a father. He doesn’t understand how hard it is for me not to see my kids. That’s not a criticism. How could he? He also doesn’t understand how massive even the smallest upgrades to the van can be. If my car works, I get better sleep. I can commute to work. I can pick up food. I can access bathrooms. I can stay warm. If my van breaks down, I have nothing.

Seven months is a long time to go without your children. We met in late August. I cried softly when I hugged them, squeezing all three of them together. They were taller and had little mannerisms I hadn’t seen before. I was able to afford a safe, clean, kid-friendly hotel in Niagara Falls. And thanks to the pandemic, I didn’t have to explain why we couldn’t visit museums, eat out or go to the movies. We went for hikes, played card games, swam in the pool—their absolute favourite thing—and snuggled up to watch movies. I chased them around the playgrounds. It amazed me how quickly we all just fell back into it.

On a day trip with his kids at Rock Point Provincial Park, on Lake Erie, in the summer of 2019

Of course, it couldn’t last. I stretched out our visits for about six weekends between August and October, two between the first and last of November, and for five hours on Christmas Day. I haven’t been able to afford to see them since.

Nothing scares me more than the thought that my situation will mess up my kids, if it hasn’t already. Life is hard enough for them as it is: the pandemic upended their lives. They’ve been pulled in and out of school, they can’t play sports, they can’t see their friends. On top of that, their dad is homeless, and they’re becoming old enough to know what that means. What does that realization, that worry, do to a kid?

My sister recently asked me to move in with her family in upstate New York. The offer was so generous, and I wanted to accept. But I couldn’t. It’s hard to see my kids now; living in New York would make it essentially impossible. The border situation, thanks to Covid, makes it all the more uncertain. And there’s also more job stability for me here in Toronto, where I make a much better salary than my counterparts in the U.S. For now, as bad as it is, the van is my best option.

I think I can manage. I still have a busy workplace, people to interact with, and Tom, who sometimes bring me sandwiches from home. I have Jay. And I’m hopeful that as the warm weather returns, the restrictions will ease and I might be able to find some odd jobs. It’ll help that I’ll be the handyman with the antibodies. But is there enough work, are there enough hours, to get out of this hole without losing what blessings I have? Love and determination have sustained me so far, and I have enough of both to keep me going.


This story appears in the March 2021 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe for just $29.95 a year, click here.