Winter under the Gardiner: frostbite, frigid weather and the looming threat of eviction

Winter under the Gardiner: frostbite, frigid weather and the looming threat of eviction
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 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 wandering 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.
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