‘I make my own environment beautiful,” Toronto woman says of life in a shelter

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TORONTO — Ana Macias rises at 5:45 a.m. on Tuesday so she can pack her things before the other residents at a downtown shelter are awake.

All her belongings fit into a large suitcase and a small handbag, which she keeps by her side at all times.

She needs it nearby because theft is a problem — her handbag has been stolen three times in the last year at Margaret’s, the shelter where she lives, and getting another Mexican passport and a visitor’s visa is stressful.

Macias sleeps in a room with a roommate who has schizophrenia. A third woman moved in this week, making physical distancing impossible.

“I don’t feel safe at night,” she says in Spanish through her translator and friend, Alejandra Adarve.

“I’m very worried about the virus, but I have no options.”

There are 211 cases of COVID-19 inside Toronto’s shelter system, though none in the facility where Macias lives.

She came to Canada from Mexico City two years ago to pick cherries. She feels vulnerable as a single mom in her home country, so she returned north last year on a visitor’s visa with her 22-year-old son and is now desperately trying to find a company to sponsor her so she can work.

Macias, 52, has worked as a chef and cared for seniors back home, but there are few jobs to be found during the pandemic, so she waits.

She heads downstairs and disinfects the dining room. Staff are overwhelmed, she says, so she’s helping out where she can.

Sometimes she makes pancakes for the shelter.

“The food is bad, but when I cook for them, they’re happy,” Macias says.

She grabs an egg, a piece of fruit and a slice of bread and squirrels it away. She rushes to take a shower. She’s allotted 15 minutes in the bathroom. Those are the rules, she says.

After her shower, Macias digs out her hidden breakfast and devours it. Then she waits in the common room for lunch, the day’s next milestone.

“I’m just there all day in the common room waiting for the next meal,” she says.

Her room is only for sleeping and will not re-open until 8 p.m.

First, she practises mindfulness. The meditation keeps her sane.

“Sometimes it gets out of control because there are many with mental health problems here, and being isolated gets very complicated,” she says. “There’s a lot of depression now.”

She digs out her art kit and draws. First, a landscape with flowers, then an abstract scene.

Then she reads. It’s a book about reincarnation. More time passes.

Then she listens to Chopin on her phone.

“I make my own environment beautiful,” she says. “It helps make me forget about the surroundings.”

She picks away at a plain pasta lunch then leaves for a walk through Yorkville, a posh neighbourhood with high-end shops that is quiet during the pandemic.

“It’s so nice there,” she says.

Then it’s back to the shelter for some more pasta, “no sauce though,” she says.

This time it has it has cheese and chicken, which she doesn’t eat because she’s vegetarian.

She talks to a few friends. More time passes, giving her time to reflect.

She thinks about Thursdays and Sundays, when she volunteers in the kitchen at Sanctuary Ministries Toronto, a drop-in centre for the homeless and underhoused.

“I’m happy to feed people who are hungry,” she says. “And I eat better, too.”

She cries when thinking about her boys.

Her older son, 33, is doing well back in Mexico. The younger one works construction in Markham, Ont., north of Toronto. He used to live at the shelter with her, but now lives closer to his work.

“I raised two independent men,” she says through tears. “I miss them.”

Above all else, she wants a home. It doesn’t need to be fancy, she says, but secure.

For that, she needs a job.

“It’s weird, but the crisis makes me hopeful because there is so much I can give,” she says.

“I’m dying to work. I just need an opportunity.”

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press


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