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Terri Smith-Fraser, 57, a nursing assistant at a Halifax hospital who is temporarily off work after hurting her back, steps outside the van she lives in full-time while parked at a city park in Halifax on April 27.DARREN CALABRESE/The Globe and Mail

Terri Smith-Fraser shut the door of the apartment she had lived in for eight years. She wiped her eyes. And told herself it was going to be okay.

Ms. Smith-Fraser, a nursing assistant, was renovicted from her Halifax apartment last spring. Her landlords, spurred by a red hot real estate market during the pandemic, sold the brick shoebox-style building in Spryfield, a suburb of the city previously known to be affordable. The cost of rent for her two-bedroom apartment more than doubled – too much for Ms. Smith-Fraser to afford on her salary of $49,000.

Her search for another place, in a city with record-high rental prices and an abysmal vacancy rate was fruitless. Halifax, the second-fastest growing city in Canada with the third-most expensive rent after Toronto and Vancouver, just didn’t have housing for a single 57-year-old health care worker.

Unwilling to be a burden on her adult daughters or find a roommate, Ms. Smith-Fraser decided van life – usually associated with the young and adventurous – was her only viable option. Before this point, she had pictured herself buying a van to travel the open road and go camping with friends, but now the bronze 1998 GMC Savana she purchased in January, 2022, was home.

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“I’m a grandma. I’m not a 20-year-old nomad snowboarder. I’m just your regular person who goes to work every day, and I live in a van,” she said.

Over this past year, Ms. Smith-Fraser has chronicled the ups and downs of living in a van to raise awareness about the housing crisis and to show others, especially women of a certain age, that her lifestyle is a possibility.

Her TikTok posts – which include retrofitting the van; figuring out how to rig a diesel heater; surviving post-tropical storm Fiona, a deep freeze and COVID-19; interacting with police; and thwarting a break-in – have tens of thousands of views. A few have exploded, reaching more than a million.

On a cold spring day in a Halifax park, Ms. Smith-Fraser has the diesel heater pumping inside the van. One-inch insulation covers the side windows. The van has the original rose velour ceiling, but also newer comforts such as a floral rug and a laminate wood floor. Her phone is plugged into a chunky, jack-of-all-trades battery on the Formica kitchen counter. Above the bed is a wooden “Explorer” sign painted by one of her three daughters.

Over this last year, Ms. Smith-Fraser has learned to get over the stigma of living in a van. Her colleagues at the hospital began to wonder why she kept a suitcase at work and froze water bottles in the freezer. When she told them where she was living, they were in disbelief.

“You can’t do that.”

“I can’t believe you’re doing that.”

“Oh my God, you live in a van?”

Ms. Smith-Fraser, athletic and upbeat with a long blonde ponytail, sits cross-legged on her bunk, watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. She downloaded the comedy while parked outside a public library where she can access free WiFi. She’s just finished a breakfast of clementines, bananas and bacon, fried on her one-burner butane stove. In a cooler on the floor, kept cold with those frozen water bottles, are steak, carrots and onions for a stir-fry she will cook tonight.

In the beginning, it felt like too much to stay on top of it all: Filling up giant blue water jugs for drinking, cooking and teeth brushing. Dumping the wastewater. Flushing the contents of her self-contained toilet in a public washroom. Keeping the cooler cold.

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After being renovicted from her apartment, Smith-Fraser has been living in her 1998 GMC van while rents and home prices continue to skyrocket to historic levels in Halifax, which is also experiencing an all-time low in rental vacancy.DARREN CALABRESE/The Globe and Mail

But now she’s used to the routine. She’s temporarily off work because of a back injury, but usually, she wakes up and throws on sweatpants, a coat and hat, and walks to work at the Halifax Infirmary from whatever side of the street she’s parked on. In the locker room, she showers, brushes her teeth and changes into scrubs. After a 12-hour shift, she walks home to the van where she’ll sleep until the next early morning shift.

Ms. Smith-Fraser has learned where to park at night through trial and error. One night, she mistakenly parked near a busy downtown street. She was about to drift off to sleep when she heard a man’s voice. “That’s a nice van you got there, buddy.”

Ms. Smith-Fraser said nothing, knowing she couldn’t reveal that she was a woman, alone inside.

Her windows were open an inch, to let fresh air into the often-stifling van. She heard the sound of someone prying open a window. She lowered her voice to the manliest level she could muster. “Get away from my van,” she growled. “You’re on camera.”

“Oh, wrong van,” said a man. Ms. Smith-Fraser clambered into the driver’s seat, turned the key and drove off, in search of a safer and quieter place to park.

In one reel posted on social media, she captures an interaction with police as they roll up to her in a public park, curious about who she is and what she’s up to.

Ms. Smith-Fraser, relaxing with the back doors flung open, blasts that popular Rockwell song, “I always feel like somebody’s watching me.”

“You like that?” she said to the police officer through his rolled-down window. Their exchange is relaxed but also drives home the extra surveillance and suspicion Ms. Smith-Fraser faces every day for living in her “mobile” home.

To most, a life packed into nine square metres would feel constricting. But Ms. Smith-Fraser says it gives her freedom: She’s not spending all of her earnings on rent and has money to travel. Nothing beats sleeping to the sound of the rain pelting the top of the van. Or eating dinner every night by the ocean.

But the world around her hasn’t quite accepted it. A year in, friends and colleagues are still quizzical about her life. “Are you going to look for an apartment now?”

“No. Why would I?” Ms. Smith-Fraser says. “I have a home.”

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