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BEHIND THE SCENES: 'I don’t live like this — I hate it': Barrie shed dwellers battle elements

BarrieToday reporter Kevin Lamb takes us behind the scenes

In each “Behind the Scenes” segment, Village Media's Scott Sexsmith sits down with one of our local journalists to talk about the story behind the story.

These interviews are designed to help you better understand how our community-based reporters gather the information that lands in your local news feed. You can find more Behind the Scenes from reporter across Ontario here

Today's spotlight is on's Kevin Lamb, whose story ''I don’t live like this — I hate it': Barrie shed dwellers battle elements' was published on Jan. 20.

Below is the full story, in case you missed it.

There is a 75-year-old among a small group of shed dwellers residing in a wooded area on Victoria Street in Barrie — victims of skyrocketing housing costs doing their best to survive the harsh winter conditions.

Perched at the side of the road under a tree near a small pond a short distance from downtown is a ramshackle structure consisting of plywood and tarps.

Inside, two older men sit around a small fire to stay warm. One eats noodles from a cup while the other pokes at the fire in a metal frame. The air is smoky but comfortably warm.

Rick, 75, a weathered-looking man with a gravelly voice, speaks to BarrieToday about his life prior to being on the street.

His wife succumbed to cancer six years ago.

They split up in 1998 because he “hit the bottle and ... lost everything,” he says.

“I still drink. Three beers and that’s my limit. I could drink 12 or more, but at my age, after two, I get tired.”

Rick has been residing in this spot since last March.

Before that, he was in another setup nearby, a stone’s throw away, with other shed dwellers, but he says he moved because the others were in their 50s and he’s 75. He likes to go to bed early, and likes the quiet isolation.

His “roommate” at the moment is his buddy, Brad, who is 53 and soft-spoken.

Attached to their hut is a three-man tent covered by a tarp. There are seven or eight sleeping bags inside.

“I crawl in and once I’m covered up, you don’t feel nothing when you stop all the wind,” Rick says. “Brad sits out here and keeps the fire going all night long.”

Rick has called Barrie home since 1998. He arrived from Toronto, where he used to work for Snap-on tools, setting up and working the press machines.

Brad has been here for about 12 years after leaving British Columbia.

Why Barrie?

“I fell in love with a girl,” he says, “but she started doing the bad stuff, and I can’t handle that stuff. I drink beer. That’s good enough. I stay away from people doing that other stuff.

“I met ‘The Mayor’ here, and we take care of each other,” Brad says, describing his friendship with Rick, and his nickname around the community.

They prefer to be out there on their own.

“Nobody bugs us,” says Brad. “We sit around and talk, and turn the radio on once in a while, and stay warm.”

'I can’t even get a room'

Hanging nearby is a white plastic KOOL FM shower radio.

“I’m trying to get a room, but I can’t even get a room,” Brad says as he describes his housing difficulties.

Ontario recorded a 3.7 per cent annual increase in housing costs, with average apartment rents at $2,446 per month, writes Urbanation, a Toronto-based real estate research firm, in a report released recently.

Barrie finished 14th out of 35 cities in the month of December, with the average one-bedroom rent sitting at $1,915 per month, which was a .9 per cent increase month-over-month, and a 2.7 per cent increase year-over-year.

Meanwhile, the average two-bedroom monthly rent cost in the city was $2,233.

When asked if agencies and social services available to them could do more to help with their housing plight, Brad replied, “They could fix our roof.”

“We need a better roof,” he says with a laugh, looking up at the holes in the tarp.

Temperatures in Barrie are expected to fall to minus-17 Celsius tonight before warming up heading into this week, but still only around the freezing mark.

For the most part, they seem to be beating the cold, but the hardest aspect of their fragile living situation is obtaining a steady supply of food.

As for cash, Rick says he was supposed to get his carbon tax rebate on Jan. 10, but nothing arrived.

“One other guy got his. I’ve never been on welfare. I worked my whole life. I collect CPP and old-age pension,” he proclaims.

He and Brad also use nearby Tim Hortons bathroom facilities to get by when nature calls.

Rick says there has been no pushback from people for being where they are.

A few city people check in on them from time to time, he says.

“We used to camp up by Big Bay Point Road and Yonge under the bridge, and they go, ‘Hey, Rick, you all right?’ They nicknamed me ‘The Mayor’ because I knew everybody in Barrie, and I usually know what’s going on, too.”

The two see a lot of people who come by and offer a little help.

“One guy named John, he brings me all kinds of peanut butter and jam sandwiches and oranges,” Rick says. “ And another guy, he stops by usually on Sunday with lasagna or spaghetti and meatballs. An older lady came by with about four cooked chickens the other day, so we made chicken sandwiches.”

What does the unsolicited kindness from strangers mean to him? “That there is a god,” he answers.

Ricks says there are about five “good people” who come by to drop off food and make sure they are all right.

“Another guy stopped by last night (and said) ‘Hey, you want a black coffee?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, and a Boston cream doughnut,’ and he said, ‘Don’t get carried away,’” Rick says with a laugh.

Meanwhile, across the street, tucked under a clutch of large trees, “Whitey,” 55, lives in a large, elaborate shed made with plywood fastened together. It’s heated by propane, and he lives alone in it.

“I have first and last months’ rent, but I’m not paying $2,400 for a little bachelor (apartment). This is bullshit. I don’t live like this — I hate it,” he states, with frustration clearly evident in his voice.

“Everybody’s saying, ‘Whitey, what are you doing out here?’ I’m trying to find a place. If not, I’ll relocate. I’ll go back to Peterborough.”

Whitey isn’t employed. He is in the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), which helps him with what he needs — his medications. He also endured back surgery on both legs in the past.

He suffers from back pain due to working in the concrete wall-forming trade for 29 years.

Whitey says his family is either dead or “all over the world.”

He has a son in Peterborough he stays in contact with.

'Waiting on an inheritance'

Whitey has five grandchildren. “That’s why I’m a little tight on money this month, because I sent my son $1,500 for the grandkids for Christmas,” he adds.

He has been in the shed since May. He was previously living in a house.

“My buddy, he’s out here, too,” he says. “He’s not far from me. It was his house. He had control of it — he rented it, and he rented me a room — and I was there two years.”

Prior to there, he resided on Chieftain Crescent in the city’s south end for seven years.

“The landlord died and the daughter stepped in and sold the house and threw all my belongings out,” Whitey laments. “I had everything packed and ready to go — because you get three months — and about a week before the due date, everything was already in the dump.”

He says there is some hope on the horizon for him.

“I’m waiting on an inheritance — maybe this month — so I guess maybe I’ll be out of the snow sometime soon. I want to build a house — two bedrooms and three storeys — if this all comes through. And I know right where to put it: Napanee. I’ll leave everything behind,” he says as he looks back at his shed.

There is camaraderie among the group of folks who are sheltering together there.

“We’re like family here,” Whitey says. “If anybody comes in, you know, ranting and raving, the rest of us will throw you out to the road. No problem.”

A chickadee lands on the top of a plywood partition next to him, chirping and looking for a handout.

“I’ve got friends wherever I go here. He lands on my shoulder — not that I need him,” he says, but adds he loves animals, so the companionship is welcome.

Back in the little tarped-over shack with Rick and Brad, visitors are welcome during the current frigid spell that has descended on the city.

Friends can come by to “bullshit and talk,” Brad says, “and if you want to get warm by the fire, come in, come in. Standing room only.”