How My Family Became Homeless and Why We’re Better for It

“It’s all right to be scared, but there’s no reason to panic.”

A yurt blown apart by the wind.
© Dylan Frey Tuttle 2022

I said this to my wife as the wind from the second nor’easter of the winter of 2022 was beating our poor yurt like a punching bag. She was sitting next to the ottoman with our five-year-old son next to her and our four-month-old daughter in her arms.

“The safest place is the triangle of life.” I was panicking.

We told Sigge to get his clothes on. It was about 9 pm. He was in a pull-up diaper. We got our coats and boots on, put our rain ponchos on and carried the kids under our ponchos to our 2000 Toyota RAV4, which was parked by the side of the road on a gravel pad left from an old postbox.

We spent the night in the car.

The Farm

Back in November 2020, we started talking with an older couple in the Annapolis Valley about the possibility of an extended farmstay. They were looking for help and we wanted to get some experience.

It seemed perfect, but the housing was complicated.

They had farmhand quarters above the barn, but it was a little cramped and we had to clear out for a friend of theirs who was coming in from BC, so we agreed to buy a yurt. We let them talk us out of getting a camper.

To complicate matters further, we thought it would be a good idea to cut and prepare saplings from their woodlot to make the roof poles and wall lattice.

I fell behind as winter turned into spring and one lockdown rolled into the next. Madison was pregnant and trying to wrap up her postdoc at Dalhousie. The couple with the hobby farm were getting impatient and when their friend rolled in from BC, things started to heat up.

Between their Extinction Rebellion views on population control and my Catholic views on the family, there wasn’t much common ground. To make matters worse, reports were just coming out of a “mass grave” at the Catholic residential school in Kamloops, the very town their friend had arrived from.

We were dis-invited from the farmstay less than a month before we were expecting the components for the yurt to arrive.

Shelburne

Madison’s coworkers would joke and say “Shelburne” in a Southern accent when they heard someone on a tiny house Facebook group invited us to put up the yurt there. We had never been, so it surprised us when we heard some pretty thick accents.

If only that were the worst of our encounters with the locals.

Canada offers 12 months of paid maternity leave based on your work history. When my aunt back in the States heard Madison was going to claim her mat leave (as most Canadians call it), she called it “welfare”.

Regardless of how much we have paid in taxes since coming to Canada, there is no getting round the stigma associated with being on the dole.

We shot ourselves in the foot by not claiming the Canada Child Benefit (CCB) sooner. It was complicated because I was caring for Sigge before Madison claimed her mat leave.

Canada makes it difficult to claim CCB if the father is the primary caregiver.

Had we been receiving CCB, our stay in Shelburne might have been a little more comfortable. As it was, things were pretty tight.

Of course, I could have gotten a job or tried to anyway, but then who would have built and maintained the yurt, stacked the firewood, installed the stove (getting hypothermia in the process), stoked the fire, et cetera, et cetera.

We thought living off-grid would simplify our lives. We thought we could reduce our expenses and be a little more frugal. We thought we could make ends meet and relax for a bit.

We were wrong.

Modern life is good at convenience.

As our betters sometimes call it, affordance is what the environment offers us. The built environment offers us many conveniences; running water, for instance. I confess I have a newfound appreciation for running water after shitting in a bucket for three months.

Truth be told, we were hoping I would finish the book I had been working on for over a year. That wasn’t meant to be. Between my husbandly duties and the interest two locals had taken in our five-year-old son, I had my hands full.

I wish I could tell you how painfully awkward our circumstances were. We were hoping for a little peace and quiet, but hardly a day passed without some kind of drama.

I will say that if an adult tells you they’re going to be your child’s best friend, think twice before you laugh it off, even if she’s a “nice old lady”.

Yurt Life

Besides having to poop in a bucket, life in the yurt wasn’t that bad. We had a wood stove that kept things nice and toasty, even at subfreezing temperatures. Of course, I could have done a better job insulating the floor. There were also leaks at the crown wheel and chimney that needed to be sorted.

I had just installed a clear circular vinyl tarp for the crown wheel and gotten our bed and couch into the yurt the day of the storm.

It was glorious — for an hour or two. The sun filled the yurt with light.

We could sleep off the floor, and Madison could relax on the couch and nurse the baby. It was perfect. Then the storm hit.

Ice Storm

Back in the Midwest, we didn’t have to deal with ice storms.

The yurt had gotten through a few gusty wind storms, but they didn’t prepare us for the sustained winds of the nor’easter. The first nor’easter of the year missed us, but the second was a direct hit.

The canvas on the yurt was all in one piece. Ideally, the two sides of the canvas would overlap.

There were ribbons at the crown wheel and along the top of the yurt that held the canvas together. Three ratchet straps also held the canvas in place along with a rope I had running across the two sides of the canvas.

The wind still got under the canvas.

We could hear it pull up the canvas and slap the yurt. We had had issues with falling roof poles, but I had taken some steps to mitigate this.

The wind was screaming. The crown wheel was shaking. We were scared.

We decided to wait it out in the car.

The only people we felt comfortable asking for help were 30 minutes away, and we weren’t about to ask them to rescue us in the middle of a storm.

Friends

We texted our friends in the morning.

They brought two 4x4s just in case one of them got stuck in the snow or slid into a ditch. They brought us back to their compound and put us up in a loft above the workshop.

The loft was their daughter’s crash pad. She graciously gave it up for us.

This couple also helped us build the yurt.

We tried to find housing that we could afford, and I started looking for work as a grant writer.

We were holed up in the loft for almost a month.

As they said, “you aren’t the first people we’ve helped and you won’t be the last.”

About this time, the daughter of one of our first Halifax neighbours told us that her mother, who had moved near her son’s family, was going to pass soon. She had been fighting lung cancer for over a year and a half.

We sent a video message and prayed for her. She died soon after.

To our complete surprise, the daughter called after the funeral and asked if we would come stay in her mother’s apartment in Halifax until the lease ends in a few months.

As our friends in Shelburne said, “sometimes you just have to admit that you need the help and not be too proud to accept it.”

Enemies

I have a tendency to rub people the wrong way. Maybe I’m too melancholic, but I don’t think I made lots of enemies before coming to Shelburne.

As if things couldn’t get any worse, our frenemies couldn’t let things go and defamed us on Facebook. We were trying to sell the yurt, and they accused us of trying to defraud people‌.

It was discouraging. I was about to donate the yurt to the Franciscans when a family from the valley stepped in and persuaded me that the Franciscans might appreciate a cash donation a little more. Indeed.

This family has already built a cordwood house and they seem to understand that a yurt requires a fair bit of fiddling.

Poverty

The CCB has come through, our permanent residency application has been approved, and I’ve had a couple of job interviews. We can’t afford to renew the lease on the apartment we’re staying in, but we can help with the rent and we’re on a waiting list for co-op housing.

Being on the dole is one thing, but when you realize you can’t repay someone’s kindness, it puts things into a whole new perspective. Yes, it’s humbling. Yes, it gives you a better appreciation for the plight of the poor.

It also shows you can’t buy your way out of a genuine emergency.

Ironically, the storm that threw us into homelessness also pulled us out of a pretty unpleasant situation. It also drew us closer to some gentle friends we don’t deserve.

Maybe our precious enlightenment ideals of the autonomous individual and world mastery are myths. Or maybe they’re just unattainable for some of us.

As humbling as our circumstances may be, part of me knows it’s all for the best.

I’m going to be exploring the idea that there is no shame in poverty. Rather, problems arise when our way of life reduces some to destitution.

Western civilization has created a lot of schemes that ensure that winners keep on winning. Yes, it has created a ridiculous amount of wealth, but at what cost? Have we, as a society, reconciled ourselves to the idea of mitigating these costs?

Or is this masking the true cost of our way of life? Alienation, anomie, the iron cage; we play with the idea like a pet but can’t seem to put it to rest.

I may just get that book written after all if I can find a way out of this trap.

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Exploring topics in sociology, politics, and ethics, especially as they relate to the agrarian question and westernization. Let’s talk power. Better yet, let’s talk about power and virtue because without virtue, power doesn’t do much good.

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Dylan Frey Tuttle

Dylan Frey Tuttle

A middle-aged man and his wife strain under his student debt, abscond to Canada with their child.

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