A Halifax woman now living in her van full-time after being renovicted from her apartment says van life has given her a bit more insight into the housing crisis in the city.
Terri Smith-Fraser is a full-time continuing care assistant (CCA) and has worked in the health care sector for 30 years. She also started working in the film industry several years ago, and just wrapped up filming of a documentary about her nephew who died from a fentanyl overdose.
Smith-Fraser said she always wanted to live the van life, but when she was renovicted from the apartment just off Herring Cove Road where she lived for decades, she decided to get ready for that life sooner than planned.
“My goal when I retired was to buy a van, so I had something in Canada to live in when I came home that I wasn’t paying rent on when I was travelling a year at a time,” she said. “I have kids and grandkids in Ontario. I have kids and grandkids here. I have family in PEI. This gave me a mobile home for when I retired. I figured it was a couple years earlier than planned, but I didn’t have a home.”
She bought the 1998 van back in the winter knowing even then that the prices of vans would go up as the housing crisis persisted. When she first bought the van, she thought it had everything she needed, but that changed when she started living in it full time in June.
“When I first moved into the van, I was really miserable,” she said. “It just wasn’t laid out well.”
The van had a kitchen in the back that blocked all the light from the back windows. There was a futon along its side she had to open every time she went to bed.
Smith-Fraser spent a lot of money renovating the vehicle, insulating the windows, putting a bed in the back, adding a countertop with a sink and pull-out stovetop where the futon was, and installing a diesel heater that’s attached to the inside of one of the doors. She even has a toilet stored under a shelf.
She even added some décor, including strings of colourful lights and stickers of a witch and a creepy clown for Halloween. She said what she pays each month on van expenses and gas is what she used to pay in rent.
“I think when you live in a van, you’re constantly tweaking it to suit your needs,” Smith-Fraser said. “I’ll probably sell this in a couple of years and just start from scratch. That way I’m not dealing with other people’s crap that I’m trying to make my own.”
Smith-Fraser works at the hospital, so on those days she parks on a side street where she doesn’t have to pay for parking. She won’t move her van until she’s finished her last shift for the week. Safety is alway a concern. She did have someone try to break in one night when she was downtown, so she switched to a neighbourhood she thought would be safer. She keeps a screwdriver and a can of wasp spray handy, and she won’t get into the van when she’s downtown if someone is walking by.
“I travel to Central America a lot and I travel by myself, so these safety things are always top of mind,” she said. “So, this really isn’t any different.”
Smith-Fraser said she’s had a lot of offers for places to stay.
“I’m 56 and I don’t want to rent a room from somebody,” she said. “I don’t want roommates. I rented my own home for the last 30 years. I find it very unfair that I don’t make enough to rent a place in the city I’ve worked in for the last 30 years as a health care worker.”
Smith-Fraser didn’t get a raise when the province hiked the wages of CCAs. That’s because CCA wages are capped and some CCAs, like Smith-Fraser, are at the top of the scale and saw nothing from the increases. That’s another reason she’s leaving health care.
While the autumn days are still often sunny and warm, the nights are already getting colder. Smith-Fraser said her diesel heater uses a lot of battery power, so she bundles up with wool blankets and feet warmers she said are “unbelievably hot.”
She’s not completely sure what to expect for winter, but she lined up some housesitting gigs for the colder months, so she can park her vehicle in a driveway. But she said her biggest concern is the overnight parking bans that are put in place when there are storms. That will affect where she parks her van during her work shifts.
“I could park at a Walmart. I won’t get towed, it’s not on the street, but it’s just far from work,” she said.
On her days off, Smith-Fraser parks her van in different parking lots in the city: at a Walmart or at a library where she can connect to the free Wi-Fi.
She said at those parking lots she’s noticed there are other people sleeping in their cars. Most of these folks are in cars, not vans. She said there’s one man who’s been living in his SUV for months. Another older couple spend the nights in their car they park in a library parking lot. Smith-Fraser said each day the older man holds up a sheet so his wife can change before she climbs into the backseat to go to sleep.
“It’s sad. It’s really sad,” Smith-Fraser said. “I didn’t realize there are as many people living in vehicles as they are. Those are just the places I frequent and have seen.”
She is worried that laws elsewhere that ban vans from parking in certain spaces will make their way to Nova Scotia.
“With a housing crisis, I’m not sure what else people are supposed to do,” she said. “I am not sure what the solution is. Not only are the rents higher, but you also need to make triple the income. They want your bio, they want to know about you. It’s become quite the application form to pass the test to even get into a building.”
It takes a lot of organization to live this life. Smith-Fraser keeps dirty laundry in a bag and drops it off at a local laundromat for cleaning. She keeps a few days’ worth of fresh scrubs in her locker at work. She showers at work, at the gym where she has a membership, or at the homes of friends whose streets she parks on during workdays. She had a fridge, but it used too much power and didn’t keep things very cold, so she now has a cooler that has several bottles of frozen water inside. She keeps another five bottles of frozen water at work and swaps them out into the cooler as needed.
Smith-Fraser started a TikTok account where she shares stories and advice on van life. She also gets tips from others living in vans, too. Some of her videos garner millions of views.
“Now I know what will get the views,” she said. “I took a picture of my (heater) and said, ‘I screwed up.’ Of course, a thousand men had to tell me what I did wrong.”
One of her TikTok videos shows people peeking in the windows and taking photos when she was bundled up in her bed recovering from COVID.
She has since stocked up on Tylenol, ibuprofen, and more water in case she’s sick again.
“I made it. I survived,” she said. “I also learned how resilient I am, and I can troubleshoot really quickly.”
Smith-Fraser said she’ll retire from health care in April and plans on working in the film industry for a couple of years.
“This is the perfect lifestyle for working in film,” she said. “If there’s a gig in Cape Breton for three months, I’ll just drive to Cape Breton.”
Still, she said she wonders how other Nova Scotians are managing to find places to live because the van life isn’t for everyone.
“I work in health care and can’t afford that,” she said. “And I’ve worked in health care my whole career. I’ve been at the hospital since the 90s and I can’t afford an apartment in the city. I can’t afford an apartment in Nova Scotia. What do single moms working at minimum wage jobs do? How do they survive? Where are they living?”