Richard Matthew Simpson - Squatters Rites


In the late eighties, I spent fourteen months homeless, living most of that time in a tent, in a large woodlot, north of Toronto.


No, it wasn’t some pseudo-scientific experiment, and it certainly wasn’t a pious Act of Solidarity with the World’s Poor. I wouldn’t have to make any special gesture to get in solid with that bunch—I’ve been for many years an unrecorded member in good standing, if that’s the appropriate phrase. But admittedly, that sojourn, having “no fixed address,” in one of the world’s more comfortable nations, was not entirely unavoidable.

I had been evicted from a rooming house downtown, for late payment of rent, a (legally) valid cause. I was in my late forties and living exclusively on cheques from photographic clients, and some of them are ruthlessly casual about paying their bills. Ask any photographer.

When I finally paid the overdue rent and had to leave, I had only the remnants of that last cheque: $800 — enough to cover the first and last months’ rent on a room no different from the one I was leaving. So I would have been again housed, but again penniless.

But it was Spring, and I had absolutely no desire to be penniless. Not at that season, and not with a bike by my side. The bike was cheap, but it carried me many miles, brought me much joy, and I yearned for the day when I could afford a good one.

And so the escape and evasion.

The friend who had sold me the bike, Dave, had a van, and the two of us moved most of my belongings into storage for a fraction of my room rent. I kept with me only my precious camping equipment—enough for an extended stay in whatever unpopulated corner of North America, south of the Arctic, I should choose, if only I could get there. Actually, had it not been for the combined effects of paranoid farmers, acid rain and UV radiation, I might still be in the place where I eventually spent most of my time.

In my last few days in the rooming house, I called the owner of a business—hereinafter known as Boss—in the area of my exile. He was an art “dealer.” I had tried to do business with him years before, selling prints of my photographs. That had never worked out—I couldn’t produce them cheaply enough to give him the kind of profit he wanted. But he remembered me, and said I could come up that Friday, stay over and help him the next day, rearranging some furniture in his garage. When I told him I was thinking of moving to the area, his immediate response was, “I don’t know where you’re gonna stay.”

Nevertheless, this little job worked out fine. I biked up there from the end of the subway line, met his family, had a bite to eat, stayed the night, did the work, got paid, made arrangements to continue the relationship, and biked home.

Boss’s ungenerous attitude regarding accommodations, I found, was not a solitary vice, but an attitude typical of the neighborhood. I had imagined from the beginning that in the houses of the area there would be plenty of vacant rooms, among which I could easily find a decent one to rent. On the first point I was correct, but on the second I was dead wrong: the locals had many spare rooms, but they didn’t need the extra cash, and they treasured nothing so much as their privacy, their peace, and their quiet—the main reasons they’d moved out there in the first place.

But I still had to find a place to live, so the next step required a certain chutzpah. Dave was busy, so I called another friend, John, my foreman on a surveying crew. He had a pickup, and some spare time, and I asked him to transport me, with the bike and all my camping gear, up to a certain house on a sideroad a ten-minute bike ride from Boss’s place, and just dump me there.

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