Dan McGilvery spent this winter in a khaki canvas tent under the soaring arches of the Gardiner Expressway.
Steps from the glass towers of CityPlace, on a bare patch of land, he staked out a few feet of privacy. He’s among about half a dozen men who camped out near Spadina Ave. and Bathurst St., seeking refuge and camaraderie in a city that doesn’t have space for them.
His makeshift shelter became his home — one he was under constant threat of losing.
In January, the men were served notices from the city informing them they had 14 days to pack up their personal items or they might be removed. The city said it was due to safety concerns. Advocates argued there was nowhere for them to go, given the abysmal rental vacancy rate and packed shelter system.
The deadline passed, but McGilvery stayed. The Star followed him and some of his neighbours over the next six weeks, as they endured snowstorms, frigid temperatures and even a fire — all while fearing the bulldozer would eventually come.
This is what their winter was like:
Feb. 1 around 2:30 p.m.
McGilvery peeks out from behind a blanket draped over his tent on a sunny, cold Friday afternoon. It’s been about three weeks since the city ordered him to leave, and he’s ready — boxes, plastic bags and storage bins lie nearby, filled with his possessions.
“I’ve got everything packed already,” he says, to get out fast if the city arrives. “They said they’ll do the cleanup.”
He’s spent the last few days in his tent, which is draped in blue tarp, riding out a recent snowstorm and stretch of freezing weather that hit wind chill lows of almost -40 C. It’s a temperature at which meteorologists warn exposed skin could freeze in 10 minutes.
There are four tents on the site. A blue and grey one has been left open nearby, and has snow inside. A black jacket with a fur-trimmed hood lies face down on the ground. There’s garbage everywhere — pieces of old chairs, records, blankets twisted and frozen into the ground, needles. But the snow covers some of it, making the camp seem almost clean and crisp. It’s quiet too, sheltered from the sounds of the city, except for the woosh of passing cars.
McGilvery may be ready to go. But as for where, he has “no idea.”
“I’m not going into a shelter,” he says, “Nah.”
There are “too many crazy people” there, he says. He did go to a nearby one recently — “but only because I wanted to get a pair of gloves.”
McGilvery has been living at the camp for “a couple of years,” he says, and homeless for about eight, since he and his girlfriend split up. On his wrist is a tattoo of a lizard, and on the back of one of his fingers are the initials KH, those of his ex-girlfriend.
He’s 59 and originally from Don Mills. He’s a roofer by trade and worked as one for decades. But he’s had some troubles with the law and spent some time in jail. He says he served 18 months about 10 years ago for “importing” cocaine through the airport.
He has a brother, Mike, who lives near Warden subway station but he hasn’t talked to him in a long time. He spent Christmas without him. He missed his mother’s funeral two years ago. He had Mike’s number in his cellphone, he says, but the phone got stolen and he hasn’t been able to contact him since.
He’d like to see him, though.
Nearby, his neighbour Richard Smith’s blond Lab mix, Pixie, is running around in a navy blue dog sweater, as her owner places two Starbucks muesli and yogurt bowls on a cooler outside. Smith struggles to close off the entrance of his tent with what looks like part of a couch wrapped in a red blanket.
“She’s doing all right,” Smith says of Pixie as she gnaws at some plastic nearby. But salt on the street has “been pretty hard on her paws.”
Smith credits the dog with saving his life and helping him through some addiction issues. He’s been camping at the site on and off for about two years after losing his apartment and job following an arrest.
He doesn’t seem worried about the cold. “I don’t know if you can tell but the wind’s kind of ravaged us a bit,” Smith says.
City officials were by about a week ago to give him a notice saying he needed to move within 14 days — “just standard, can’t have your stuff on city property.”
The 40-year-old appreciates the heads-up, and says what annoys him most is when they say they’re coming and then don’t.
After the Star spoke to him for a previous story in January, he says the Streets to Homes people — workers tasked with helping people like him find shelter services and, ideally, housing — came and he filled out some forms.
“I’m working on getting inside,” he says, putting a leash on Pixie.
Smith says he understands the workers are doing the best they can, and doesn’t blame them.
“If there isn’t anything affordable, they’re not miracle workers.”
Feb. 14 around 11:15 a.m.
It’s Valentine’s Day, after a fierce midweek storm. There are dog tracks, maybe Pixie’s, and what look like bunny paw prints in the snow leading into the camp, which is quiet and still.
Most of the men are sleeping, McGilvery says, because they’ve been up all night packing.
“They were supposed to come and kick us out today, but they didn’t turn up,” he calls out in a muffled voice from inside his tent. “It’s OK, we’re ready.”
McGilvery pulls back the corner of his tent. He’s sitting with a large white propane tank. There’s a burner attached to it that he found in the garbage, and he’s flicking a lighter on and off, sending off ripples of blue flames.
“This tent comes down in one piece,” he says. “In five seconds I can take this down, and put it up.”
Asked where he’ll go, he grins.
“I’ve already got a plan,” he says. “I can’t tell you where.”
After the storm, temperatures have eased up and some of the snow is melting. Water drips from the underbelly of the Gardiner. A blue scooter lies face down encased in ice.
A younger woman walks by, placing a sole women’s boot on top of his trailer. Her name is Nicky, she says, but she can’t talk today, maybe some other time.
“I want to make a place here for myself,” she says, before wondering off.
There’s one tent on the south side of the encampment that has a chimney poking out from it. McGilvery sometimes helps his neighbour chop firewood, and goes over to his fire pit to get warm.
But, despite this, he has frostbite on three of his toes and has been soaking them in warm water at night. Two of the nails have already come off. He blames the city and the mayor for his frostbite.
“What kind of mayor would kick people out in the middle of winter?” he asks.
“If people had left us alone, we could build a little shack and stay warm.”
Feb. 27 around 1 p.m.
McGilvery is taking shelter inside his tent as a snowstorm snarls traffic and cancels school buses, with 15 centimetres expected to fall by the end of the day. Across Toronto, people have been complaining about winter for weeks. The sidewalks are icy; it’s -7 C and feels like -16 C.
McGilvery pokes his head out from behind a blanket. A box spring is resting in front of the tent.
“It blocks the wind,” he says. “I’ve got a bungee cord and I strap it around the wood at the back, so then it won’t fall over anymore.”
It came “from one of the buildings,” he says, gesturing to the CityPlace condos that are almost hidden by falling snow.
He’s doing fine, he says; his toes are OK, except one that’s “iffy.” He hasn’t seen anyone from the city recently and has heard rumours they’re not coming back until it warms up.
But “I’m always packed up,” he says. “I just take out what I need.”
Terence Campos, who says he’s staying at a tent nearby, appears wearing a red, white and black Toronto FC scarf, and holding a plastic container of fried chicken.
“I bought it at 7-Eleven just now. It’s for a snack. I don’t really eat chicken too much, that’s the problem. There was a combo, six bucks,” he says, handing it to McGilvery.
Campos, 40, is originally from the Eglinton and Keele area but says he’s been living in a tent in the encampment for maybe six years.
“He knew my toes were cold,” says McGilvery, after Campos has moved on. He carefully places the container inside the tent, near a plastic bin filled with biscuits.
The blue and grey tent that was left open is gone. There’s a new red and grey one, and to the east a white structure that looks like tarp stretched into a tent shape. Nobody answers at either one.
Richard Smith and Pixie are inside their own blue tent, tucked away from the wind.
A few books are scattered nearby, including a copy of The Grapes of Wrath, covered in snow. A cooking pot and a can of grapefruit San Pellegrino sparkling water sit on top of a cooler, near a red sleeping bag.
“We’re all right,” Smith calls out from inside. Some people from the city were there yesterday, he adds.
“They’re helping me look for a place,” he says.
Asked about the new tents, he answers, “It’s mostly the same people. The wind kind of wrecked their tents.”
McGilvery sometimes goes out at night, he says, if it gets too cold.
“I stop at some place that’s open 24 hours and warm up,” he says. “We go bottle hunting or up to Timmies.”
He has little patience for people complaining about the weather.
“It’s winter, what do you want?” he says. “It’s only another month, it will fly by.”
March 12 around 3:30 p.m.
It’s the first day in months with no wind and a clear blue sky. The camp is muddy and the snow has mostly melted, but giant puddles form ice lakes scattered across the site.
A scrap of burnt paper drifts down from the arches of the expressway.
In the corner where the biggest tent with the chimney was, there’s now just a heap of twisted, blackened metal. There’s a burnt wooden board, what looks like a destroyed speaker, and the remnants of a motorized scooter.
There was “a big explosion” a couple of days ago, says McGilvery, packing bottles and cans into plastic bins. “A boom, I woke up.”
He doesn’t know what happened, or where the man staying there went. Police were called to the fire around 1 p.m. on March 10, just days before. There were no injuries and no tents caught fire — “it was a pile of burnt rubbish,” according to Toronto police Const. Caroline de Kloet.
McGilvery has been busy, gathering bottles from different places, including the condos nearby.
“A lot of them kick you out but you’ve got to be fast,” he says with a laugh.
His friend is going to pick them up, load them into his bike trailer and take them to the Beer Store. That’s how he gets money, he says — he’ll give maybe $10 to Smith or one of the other guys who help him.
Inside his tent he’s made a bed out of what looks like part of a couch or a lounge chair. He’s turned a wooden crate into a bedside table and behind him is a large plastic box with a jar of peanut butter inside.
A white candle sits on the table. He found it yesterday among the garbage in the camp, he says, as he lights the propane tank. He cooks things on it with his burner, such as hot dogs or bacon and eggs. Sometimes a woman comes from Starbucks with food he can heat up. He also has a battery-powered shower radio, but it only gets one station.
McGilvery says he recently met a man who brings food and clothes to the camp, who offered him a roofing job next month that he thinks he’ll take.
A man in a red shirt and pants wanders into the camp. He’s not wearing a jacket. He asks McGilvery if he can go inside his tent to get a break from the cold and McGilvery lets him.
“I let anybody warm up. I don’t want to see nobody cold,” he says.
Later the man rides through the camp on a bike, carrying a spare tire in his hand. He comes back minutes later without the bike or the wheel, yelling insults at the sky.
“They’re coming tomorrow,” he’s heard of the city. As he’s been hearing for weeks.
“They’re just keeping us on the edge.”
March 14 around 1:30 p.m.
The camp is still and empty. There are fresh bulldozer tracks in the mud. Much of the garbage that coated the site is gone. So are the tents.
There’s no sign of McGilvery.
Campos is setting a small pile of belongings near a pillar on the east side of the camp — a green cooler, black and white skateboard, and red folding chair — beside a duffel bag and backpack.
The city came around 8 a.m. to clean up the site.
“They said they might get me inside,” he says. “That’d be better.”
City spokesperson Brad Ross later told the Star that all nine homeless camp sites where eviction notices were issued in January were cleared. Officials wanted to wait until it was a bit warmer, and were also concerned after the fire last week, he said, calling it “a fine balance.” The debris was cleared out, but the city kept anything that seemed like personal belongings in case people want them back.
“The Streets to Homes staff will continue to work with them,” he said, “and if another camp appears we will assess it and make a decision in the future as to next steps with respect to issuing another notice.”
The same day, Mayor John Tory told reporters the city is trying to deal with the encampments “sensitively,” recognizing the root problem is a lack of affordable housing.
“We have a big job to do on increasing the supply of affordable and supportive housing to make sure people don’t have to pursue this option,” he said.
Campos is not worried about the city workers returning, saying, “Hopefully I’ll be inside by then.”
Smith arrives at the south end, Pixie at his feet, carrying a mattress over his head.
“I’m surprised she’s still on all fours. We’ve had a long day,” he says.
He was there when the city came, but packed up. “It was pretty calm. We kind of knew it was coming.”
He’s setting back up temporarily, but he says he has a new housing worker and he too is hoping he can “get inside” soon.
McGilvery rides by with a cigarette in his mouth and waves, a stack of wooden loading pallets on top of his bike trailer.
He’s been “panning” nearby, he says, opening his hand to reveal a hot pink Hershey’s kiss. A woman reached out of her car to give him a few, along with a bag of women’s clothes. He rolls his eyes.
“What am I going to do with ladies’ clothes?”
He’s stacking the pallets on top of each other where his tent used to be. He gave the tent to the city during the cleanup, he says, because it had holes in it.
“He’s a roofer,” Campos says. “I’m going to get him to build my shack.”
Behind them Smith is raking the ground to make a clear patch for his tent.
“They give you two weeks’ notice and if you’re not ready it’s your own damn fault,” McGilvery says.
“They gave us two weeks’ notice, but they didn’t come for two months.”
McGilvery is still mad at the mayor. But not waiting anymore. He’s already looking ahead. Rebuilding.
Now, instead of a tent, he’s building the wooden shack he’s wanted all winter. The pallets will be a platform to keep him off the mud.
Tonight, he’ll be in a sleeping bag on the ground. But he’s hoping the new shack can be more portable. He’ll put wheels on it, he says, and hook it up to his bike.
For when the city comes again.
With files from Tess Kalinowski
May Warren is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @maywarren11