I had not known true disappointment until the stewardess welcomed me to Edmonton this past April. As the airport doors closed and the plane backed up, I began to weep.
Earlier, when I’d taken my seat on the nearly empty plane, “I hope you know how brave you are” appeared on my phone screen. I switched my phone off and said goodbye to Vancouver, a city I resented leaving.
For the first time, I was overwhelmed with the prospect of a major solo move — this would be the ninth in five years. But the job made it worth it.
I had started applying for summer internships at the end of September 2019. By mid-March 2020 and 27 applications later I was still empty handed. I snagged my only interview at the end of February and was offered a position at a newspaper in Edmonton. A few days before I was set to start, I was laid off due to COVID-19. Unable to get out of my Edmonton lease, I made the move anyways.
I just had to get on my plane.
I had to get there.
I had to be okay.
And I thought I would be.
The COVID-19 pandemic has left most Canadians with an unexpected financial hardship, but there were supports in place to help lessen the blow. In early April, the province enacted an eviction ban and renters support to help keep people housed. Now, as the restrictions lessen and emergency benefits halt, the city is bracing for a surge in evictions as people can no longer afford rent.
Edmonton did not feel like my home but I had a safe house waiting for me. The night before I left, sitting atop my kitchen counter with a steamy cup of tea in hand, all I could think about was how lucky I was that I had a stable place to live for the next few months.
Making a major move in the middle of a pandemic is no small feat. As someone without a driver's license who regularly relies on public transit and a cab to get to and from airports, I could not stop thinking about the germs in a cab.
They have never felt clean but it was suddenly more than unsettling and a real danger. Was it worth it? And even if it wasn’t, did I have a choice?
A friend offered to drive me instead. Equipped with masks and soaked in hand sanitizer, we made our way through the empty streets.
“It will be good,” I said trying to convince both of us I would be okay. “I have moved so many times before I will be fine.”
But this time did not feel fine.
While so much felt uncertain, all I wanted was a home that felt like my own. I have been on my own since I was a teen. A few months before I was set to graduate high school, I found myself on the curb with $60 and a hurriedly packed duffle bag.
Dog walkers passed, not once asking if I was okay, as I frantically and apologetically called friends one after another.
“I am fine, but I have nowhere to go,” I told them.
They never asked questions and always made sure I had breakfast in the morning. Five years later, I was headed to Edmonton for the same reason. I don’t have somewhere to run back to when life feels a bit too heavy.
Edmonton was a mystery to me. I didn’t know anyone there nor did I have a favourite coffee shop to help me settle in. My closest friend was the security guard at Safeway. She always told me to have a good day and I could tell she meant it. I never knew her name but sometimes all I had to hold onto was the next grocery trip.
But people love Edmonton. I had heard about how it's supposed to be a wonderful city. It holds the North Saskatchewan River Valley, the largest inter-city park system in North America. The valley runs around the downtown core that is built up on a hill — with the historic Provincial Legislature at its top.
But I didn’t explore the city. I only drove through the city on my way to the police station.
On a Monday afternoon, a middle-aged man watched my roommate walk down the block to Safeway. I was downstairs having a nap. He walked inside, took our wallets, a hammock and our identities. It took ten minutes.
We did not realize until the next day but both locked our bedroom doors that night with unshakeable bad gut feelings.
Standing in the Edmonton police department next to someone who could not pay their $600 fine as a result of the pandemic and was headed to jail, I couldn’t fathom how I ended up there.
The officer told us that the intruder would likely be back (we were such an easy target) and to give them a call when — not if — it happened. We spent the afternoon calling government agencies and banks trying to stop the intruder from stealing our identities.
Two days later, in an empty house, I caught him opening the front door. I did what any adult in a city alone would do — I blasted the TV and pretended I was in Home Alone. He eventually gave up.
He came back once more and we had to call the police four other times for unrelated domestic violence in our front yard.
What do you do when you move to a city but still feel like you haven’t arrived?
With every creak of the floor or door handle turn, “I am not a murderer” appeared on my phone from my roommate in a desperate attempt to reassure me that for the moment we were safe.
As startling as being thrust into a new city with no connection was, I left just as promptly.
I was unable to get medical clearance to fly back to BC and hitched a ride from a friend of a friend. I only had a few day’s notice but it was the much-needed ticket out of Edmonton. We had never met but she stopped to show me her favourite lookouts in Banff and Yoho National Parks.
She called her dad to tell him about the train tunnels and how the waterfalls looked that day.
But I didn’t have anything waiting for me back in BC. I once again found myself unsure where I would live for the next few weeks. I spent nearly a month sleeping on friends’ couches, asking to move in for a short while as COVID-19 was facing an uptick. Asking someone to invade their space is hard in the best of times. This time, I felt like an extra burden.
Even still, I have struggled to reconcile my difficulties in obtaining housing with my immense privilege. I have always had friends who would drop everything to swoop in and make sure I was okay. I have never slept on the street or in a shelter. But I cannot count how many times the sun has been setting and I still don’t know where to go.
According to Homeless Hub, an estimated 35,000-40,000 young Canadians experience homelessness annually. I did not realize that I was one of them.
Friends were exceedingly kind. They met me where I was, drove me to my new temporary home and once again offered me a warm cup of coffee in the morning.
Still, I was terrified. They weren’t always as careful about socially distancing as me and my compromised immune system would have liked. Their bubbles didn’t exist and they had friends over for dinner. It is probably the reason they were comfortable with me staying.
I was facing the possibility of ending up with nowhere to go but knowing if I stayed in some of these living situations I was likely to catch COVID-19. It was an impossible choice.
On my first night at the last temporary stay, I walked 20 minutes to the Buy-Low foods. The fancy pasta sauce was on sale and for a moment I felt like I could breathe. I was able to step outside survival and have a moment of preference.
Halfway home, I realized I did not know where I was or where I was going. I had not looked at the address when I left and all the streets were beginning to look the same. I put the bag down as I began to cry.
The pasta sauce shattered as it hit the pavement.
The tears fell with more urgency.
My phone had 12 per cent battery.
I eventually called enough people who knew someone, who knew someone who knew where I was supposed to be.
I made it back to the house but I am still not sure where I belong. I did not need someone to break into my house and attempt to steal my identity to know I had already lost my own. I lost my job and favourite city and was left with a home that did not feel like a refuge.
Perhaps one of the greatest casualties of the pandemic is that it forces our community to stay at an arm’s length when you need them most.
My first night at a friend’s all those years ago, she wouldn’t let me sleep on the couch and held me as we cried falling asleep in her double bed. We didn’t talk but I knew I would be okay even if I didn’t feel okay. I am still that kid who wants to be held. Only this time, close contact could be life threatening. So, I stood on opposite sides of the room and knew they wanted to close the distance too.