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Notes from the Trail: Homelessness lurks for many, and it came for me

Our major household project started going downhill in May.
Nancy Vail

Our major household project started going downhill in May.

We had talked about the house since November and in early March, construction started. Two months in, communication broke down and things went south.

I was facing my worst fear – homelessness.

Before getting my first dog in September 2021, I had made a silent promise that no matter what, I would never abandon it. A year later, I got a second one to keep the first dog company, confident that my housing was secure.

When everything fell apart, I immediately started looking for somewhere for me and the kids. While friends offered me a place, no one wanted dogs.

When July 1 rolled around, the kids and I were without a place. It was my worst nightmare come true. We had nowhere to go, and my money was tied up in a project that had gone sour.

A friend gave us a tent trailer, which we parked near Prelude campground. For the first few nights, the mosquitoes did us in. The tent trailer had come from the south and wasn’t built to keep out Northern bugs. A heavy dose of masking tape, mosquito mesh and repellent saved us that first week but then came the smoke. Nothing could protect us from that.

But it wasn’t the heat or the smoke that scared us that first month. It was the many bears lurking nearby. Two sets of moms and cubs had been spotted by Cassidy Point. Prelude campground had a couple there, and a bear trap was set by Prosperous Lake with rumours that a wounded bear was in the area. We were surrounded.

There was some comfort knowing that a bear was unlikely to approach a tent with dogs, but I slept with an airhorn nearby.

No one told us about the wolf.

It was 1:57 a.m. — I remember distinctly because the first thing I did when the howling woke me that early August morning was look at my watch.

“Did you hear that?” I texted my friend in the nearby mobile home.

“Yes” came the one-word reply.

“I’m scared.”

No answer. I was worried.

Ten minutes later the next howl came within 10 feet of the tent. Every hair on the dogs’ necks went up and the pup started growling. I heard the wolf slowly work its way around the trailer, pausing to howl at each corner.

It left after half an hour or so but it was a long, sleepless night.

Next morning, I learned that it was classic luring behavior. The wolf had hoped to encourage one of the dogs to join it. Typically, there is a pack nearby waiting to put the dog to a quick end.

We were never visited by the wolf again but a few days later, we were driven out by heavy smoke, so heavy we could not breathe. I threw the dogs in the car headed to town.

Two nights later, Yellowknife was evacuated, and we found a safe smoke-free place in Alberta. It was a break we needed after a trying summer.

The message in all of this is that homelessness can happen to anyone at any time and for a variety of reasons. While my funds were temporarily tied up, we had no addictions or physical or mental health issues to point to as the underlying cause.

It was happenstance and it could happen to anyone regardless of social status, age, gender or education. And there is a domino affect.

I had several work contracts lined up but without a stable home, surviving and employment is almost impossible. You understand quickly what those without homes mean when they say that eventually, they just give up.

They are too often victims of circumstance.

Homelessness is a crisis across this country and indeed most of the world. So many living in makeshift shelters, tents, cardboard boxes, couch surfing — anything to keep warm and dry. Life shifts once you lose a home base, which Maslow said long ago was a basic need. Without shelter, self-actualization – realizing your self — becomes impossible.

By the time this appears in print, the dogs and I should be in a home of our own. We pulled through.

But that will not be the case for many out there who face insurmountable odds through no fault of their own.

Housing should not be a luxury open to a few. It must become something available to us all if we hope to improve as a society. With an election around the corner, this is something to keep in mind.

—Nancy Vail is a longtime Yellowknifer concerned with social justice.