Home is such a vital space for me. It’s where I unwind from my day, where I make the food that nourishes me. Home is where I put on my comfy clothes and pet my cats. It’s a space that I share with friends and loved ones. It’s where my insanely comfy bed is — my first “adult” purchase, that I was able to afford because someone I knew was selling it for really cheap.
When I talk about how important home is to me, I often joke that it’s because I’m a cancer (the astrological sign that loves nesting and the home). But my relationship to home has been a fraught one for me. Home has been a place of instability, of trauma, and as a teenager I barely wanted to spend any time there. Home is where my mother died of cancer when I was 11. Home is where our increasing dive into poverty showed itself: in the leak in the bathroom that we couldn’t afford to fix, in the wet soppy carpets that we had to squee-gee because of that leak. When I was 17 I came home and found an eviction notice on our front door. My dad was many months behind in rent and there was no way he could pay up. After my mother passed away, my dad began to develop a rare form of ALS, and as that began to develop and the art market (in which my dad worked) began to decline, it became more and more difficult to pay the bills.
I moved in to my boyfriend’s house so that I could finish the last month and a half of high school. My dad and brother moved into a low-income apartment in Oshawa — three towns over from where we grew up. Once high school was finished I moved into the apartment. It had been decided that my dad and brother would each get a bedroom and I would sleep on a futon in the living room. This decision was made, in part, because I’d be attending university in the fall and would stay with my grandparents three nights of the week so that the 3.5 hour commute from Oshawa would be a 1 hour commute from Etobicoke.
To be honest, I didn’t mind not having my own bedroom. What I did mind was my brother coming home at 2am and deciding to microwave a late night snack in the very room that I was sleeping in. When I would confront him about it in the morning, he would scream, punch holes in the walls, claim that he had more of a right to do as he pleased since he was paying more rent than me (my brother dropped out of high school, and so my dad felt that it was only fair that I pay less because I was in university full-time). We eventually patched things up and now my brother and I have a great relationship. I realized later that his response was just his grief talking.
During that first year of university, I would stay with my grandparents Monday-Wednesday and then come home to Oshawa on Thursday. Coming home meant working part-time at McDonald’s. It meant helping my dad eat, do laundry and grocery shopping, and eventually it meant helping my dad bathe. We spent that year in Oshawa without the aid of Ontario Disability. My father applied, and despite notes from neurologists that his arms barely worked, he was denied. We went through an exhausting appeal process and he was granted Ontario Disability. But that help didn’t change the fact that I was once stopped in the halls by a drug dealer named “Bullet” and told that if I needed coke or guns, he could help me out. It didn’t change the fact that there was an old man, clearly dealing with alcoholism, who lived two floors above us, and would come out 2-3 nights a week, with a megaphone, and sing incoherently off his balcony. Banging on his door didn’t work — the music was too loud. Needless to say, home was far from my favourite place to be.
Moving out of Oshawa and into a different apartment in Ajax (Ajax is beside Pickering, the town we grew up in) definitely helped. But the situation was the same: I slept on a futon in the living room and my brother continued to microwave food at 2am. In 2007 I moved into Toronto and found a communal home that offered me all of the things I didn’t have at home: my own bedroom, meals with roommates that didn’t involve the TV being on, and no more shouting matches. It was then that I began to cultivate a sense of home.
This past February I got my own 1 bedroom apartment. After years of living communally (with 1-3 roommates) and with two significant others, I decided that I wanted my own place. Somewhere that I could come home to and know that if there were dishes in the sink, it was my fault. Somewhere that I could decorate with all of my things and fully embrace my design aesthetic, which I describe as “What happens when an adolescent girl and her grandma get together.” Somewhere that I could be as naked as I want, whenever I want.
But living in Toronto means that you have to comprise. Rent is so insanely high that if you want to live alone, you’ll either need to live in a basement apartment or in a high-rise. As someone who needs lots of sunlight, I picked the latter. This building reminds me so much of where my family moved after we were evicted. It is a low-income building. Many of the folks who live here are dealing with a variety of mental health issues, many are immigrants, and all of us live below the poverty line (in 2012, the Median after-tax income was just $27,300 for single people).
I want to take a minute to spell out what living in poverty looks like, for me, as well as acknowledge the privileged position(s) that I occupy. I live off of a guaranteed income of $23,000/year, which comes from being in a PhD program, and $8500 of that comes from working as a teaching assistant. But then tuition is $8400, which brings me to $14,500 for the rest of the year, or $1200/month x 12 months (and that’s before taxes). The reality is that I need more than that to live — my rent alone is a little over $1000 with utilities — and so that $14,500 gets spread over 8 months, leaving me with no guaranteed income for the summer. When I should be focusing on writing my dissertation, I apply for — and pray that I’ll get — one of the few summer TA positions on offer (last year less than half of those who applied secured one). I often have to take out an emergency loan from the university in order to make it through.
But I’m also a white, able-bodied, cisgendered, femme queer graduate student. My poverty isn’t as obvious because I’m getting a PhD. I can still afford to buy myself a new dress when I feel like it (although not without much guilt). I’ve never had a problem gaining employment when I’ve needed it thanks to the privilege that being white, able-bodied, and cisgendered affords me. I’m also grateful to live in Canada, where I receive free healthcare. I’m all the more grateful as I have no idea what life would look like for my dad (and my family) if we lived in the US.
So while there are many similarities, there are also many differences. I chose this apartment. I painted the walls and hung things on the walls (something we didn’t do much of when I lived with my family). And living here is enabling me to rewrite my story of growing up poor. There’s nothing glamorous about living below the poverty line. But living in low-income housing doesn’t have to be ugly. When Toronto photographer Yuli Scheidt said that she was looking for folks to colaborate with on photo shoots, I messaged her right away. I had a vision for a photo shoot in my apartment and around the building, where I’d wear my favourite outfits for fall/winter. This photo diary is an attempt for me to work through some of the poor shame that I often feel and to find something beautiful in the place I call home.
I’ve been working on this gallery wall for a long time. Given that my whole dissertation is about teen girls and feelings, it’s perhaps not super surprising that you’ll find what I’ve called my “sad girl art wall” in my living room.
This necklace by Shayna Stevenson + dress by C’est Moi is one of my favourite combos for teaching or when I’m feeling like being a little bit more classy. I coveted my pal’s Shayna Stevenson necklace for over a year before I decided that I could treat myself with my last teaching paycheque (I purchased mine from one of my fav local shops, Coal Miner’s Daughter).
This poster behind me is by one of my favourite painters, Balthus (1908-2001). Balthus was known for painting his next door neighbour’s daughter, his muse, Thérèse (don’t worry friends, the person in this painting is his wife). Many folks find this disturbing, but I love the paintings. They capture a girl who isn’t embarrassed by her burgeoning sexuality. So when my colleague asked me if I wanted this print (which her and her husband decided maybe wasn’t appropriate for their two children to see) I happily brought it home with me.
My apartment gets this epic sunlight every day just around sundown. Yuli truly captured the magic of the light and this wine-coloured velvet dress.
In case it wasn’t clear, I’m having a bit of a love affair with baby pink. And this hat is a dream. I have purchased many hats over the years and have been left feeling like Goldilocks, no hat was quite the right fit. Until I found this hat from ASOS at the Kind Exchange.
On the way down to the laundry room I asked Yuli if we could stop and capture the circular hallway.
When I first came to see the apartment, I was struck by these giant stone structures that resemble what I can only imagine to be some sort of space ship landing pad from the future. The front of my building feels like it belongs in a dystopian novel. Yuli did her best to capture these structures (while still capturing my outfit).fashion, home, poor, poverty
This post was written by Margeaux