Tonya Alton will sleep in her Nissan Micra when she isn’t able to find a place to stay. Alton has had to move nearly 10 times since March. (Kendra Crighton/News Staff)

‘I’ve fallen through the cracks’: Victoria woman calls herself new face of homelessness

Tonya Alton has had to move almost ten times since a ‘wrongful eviction’ in March

Tonya Alton looked down at the fuel gauge in her small Nissan Micra and her stomach dropped. She was running on fumes and no sleep, having driven into Greater Victoria from up-Island in hopes of finding a place to stay after a brief stint in a hostel.

Feeling like she was ready to drop, Alton knew she shouldn’t be driving and pulled into a familiar spot as the morning sun started to breach. As she wrapped herself in a table cloth, she was struck with the irony of the situation that she was now sleeping outside, near a trail that leads to the suite Alton was evicted from near Elk Lake at the end of March. That thrust her into a never-ending cycle of displacement. Since then, Alton has moved nearly 10 times to various short-term shelters, causing major stress and anxiety.

Alton says she’s fallen through the cracks, and calls herself the new face of homelessness in the age of the pandemic after what she claims was a wrongful eviction.

Her story starts before coronavirus was in every headline.

READ ALSO: 21% of Canadians worried about ‘losing the roof over their heads’ if CERB ends: poll

In January, Alton rented the small bachelor suite and was offered a job with Destination Greater Victoria as a visitor information counsellor. She later realized the start date of March 16 would not allow enough time for her to afford the next month’s rent and kept searching for work. As news of the virus began to spread, the job she was offered was no longer available as tourism dried up when borders were closed. Alton stayed in touch with her landlords via email, updating them often about her situation and providing proof of her job search but being honest about her financial trouble.

Her landlord’s response was to harsh but polite. “It’s not personal,” reads the email she received on March 13, just a few weeks before the province’s ban on evictions came into effect, “but consider this your final notice.”

“I was so compliant, it was unbelievable. I was shocked. First of all, that I was going to be thrust out. I’d hear about the virus pandemic, people are dying. I was so scared and then I had all my family and friends giving me all different information – it was so stressful,” she says as her voice starts to break.

According to Marielle Tounsi, public affairs officer with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, if an eviction notice was issued before March 30, renters must make an application for dispute resolution to the Residential Tenancy Branch. But if the renter did not dispute the notice, that would be considered accepting the eviction.

Alton says she could barely afford to feed herself, let alone pay the $100 fee to file a dispute. She left the suite willingly. Just after her eviction, Alton was offered a job cleaning and disinfecting three construction sites but was laid off after only a month. While she wishes she still had a job, the lay-off allowed her to apply for and receive the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which she’s been living on ever since.

According to an online poll from Maru/Blue, one in five Canadians are worried about surviving without CERB, finding that 21 per cent of people said if they stopped receiving the $2,000 a month they “literally could lose the roof over their head.” The same poll found just under half of Canadians – 48 per cent – believe CERB should be stopped regardless of the impact.

Since the eviction, Alton has lived in hostels, Airbnbs and any other short-term rental that will take her. When she runs out of money or if she can’t find a place to stay, she sleeps in her vehicle, where she keeps a couple small coolers with food. According to Alton, she paid just over $1,000 for 14 days of shelter which doesn’t leave her much to cover her other expenses such as car payments and insurance, gas and food.

Grant McKenzie, director of communications for Our Place, says the organization hasn’t seen an uptick in people who are homeless for the first time, yet but he’s heard numerous stories about the issue, mostly from people in shared accommodation.

READ ALSO: Long-term psychological impact of COVID-19 a concern for kids and parents, experts say

“Most people are living one or two paycheques away [from becoming homeless] and I think COVID really brings that to light for people,” he says.

Alton believes that once the eviction ban has been lifted, there will be a “tsunami of newly displaced people.”

McKenzie shares a similar view.

Tonya Alton has moved almost ten times since March after what she says was a wrongful eviction. (Kendra Crighton/News Staff)

“We’re in the eighth month [of the pandemic]. I don’t know anybody who’s got a year’s worth of savings to help tide them over.”

Recently, Alton got the news that her nephew died, and while she’s thankful she has a place to stay for now, she says it’s extremely hard to grieve in a stranger’s house. The news of his death also triggered Alton’s PTSD from the sudden death of her only daughter, Shayla, in 2011 when her vehicle went off the side of the road in Kelowna and ended up in the McKinley reservoir.

“I’ve fallen through the cracks, and thank God there are beautiful places in Victoria. There are good people, I have had complete strangers help me out and open up their hearts,” she says. “This face … is the new homelessness that’s happening out there. I have met so many displaced families, people – it’s unbelievable what’s happening.”

On June 30, Alton was transported to Victoria General Hospital after she suffered a stroke. Alton says her doctors have linked her medical condition to the stress of being displaced throughout the pandemic.

– With files from Katya Slepian

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