A few days ago, I found myself sitting on the edge of our half-assembled bed — my stomach tight and nauseous. "What's wrong?" my wife asked, having noticed my rapidly failing efforts to keep it together.
Since the coronavirus pandemic, I'd been spending mostly sleepless nights poring over financial statements and spreadsheets. I was stressed, irritable and emotional. But there was no point in holding back anymore.
"I lost all my contracts," I said. "We're going broke."
Before the pandemic, we decided to move out of our small Toronto apartment and rent a bigger place about an hour-and-half drive from the city.
Our income was the highest it had ever been in 2019. We still had our daily expenses, child care costs, student loans, and other debts to pay off, but we wanted our kids to finally have a backyard. Plus, if we budgeted carefully, we'd be able to buy a house in a few years.
As a mental health strategist and speaker, my income mostly comes from conferences and corporate training. But in March, over the course of just a few days, every contract I had lined up through September was canceled due to the pandemic.
I suddenly went from having a healthy stream of income to absolutely nothing. My first reaction was disbelief. Then came guilt and regret: I should have saved more, I should not have spent so much, I should have seen this coming.
We only had about three months of savings to cover a six-month shortfall, possibly longer. Even with the government's recently announced Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (which would provide $2,000 per month for four months to those who lost their jobs because of Covid-19), it wouldn't be enough to cover rent, bills, and cost of food for a family of five.
My wife was still in the doorway, holding our nine-month-old daughter. A few seconds later, my six-year-old son bounced into the room. "Daddy, let's dance!" he shouted. Seconds later, his two-year-old brother ran up from behind: "No! I dance with daddy," he said.
"Boys, let daddy work." My wife ushered them out of the room.
I couldn't let them down. I opened my laptop and started a letter to our landlord. "This is an email I never imagined I'd have to send," I began.
With full transparency, I explained our situation. We had to move back to the city and into our much smaller apartment, which meant breaking the lease. No eviction laws protecting renters had been put into place, and since we signed a one-year lease, our landlord had the right to sue for contract violations. I voiced that as my main concern.
In Toronto, we'd have a better chance of finding work and save money through public transit. Still, there were no guarantees. "We have no other choice but to take that risk. If we don't leave, we'll be out of money and food in less than three months," I wrote. "We love it here, but we also don't intend to stay without paying."
I wrapped up the email and hit send, then went to the living room and danced with my kids.
Early the next morning, after another sleepless night, I turned over and checked my phone. My landlord sent a response at 1 a.m.:
First, I would like to thank you for your transparency and for the heads-up you're giving me here. Second, I'd like to assure you that during these difficult times, our relationship is way beyond a landlord-tenant one. We're all humans and we are all together in this unprecedented time to support each other.
It's unfortunate what you and your family are going through, and I'm very sad to hear you must move back to Toronto, since I've enjoyed having you as tenants. But I completely understand: Family comes first.
As you're probably aware, I'm not a hard person to deal with. But I'd like you to know, Mark, that I'm not a big investor — and the rent I collect barely even covers this property's monthly expense. Honestly, I'm having financial difficulties, too — just like you and millions of other people...especially being self-employed as a realtor (and the real estate market got affected big time due to this COVID-19 pandemic).
Here are my suggestions on how we can work together during this difficult time:
Mark, I hope this gives you enough time to plan ahead. Certainly, my thoughts are with you, your family and your loved ones.
Best Regards, [...]"
Reading the letter, I felt the tears well up in my eyes. I was overcome with gratitude for our landlord's simple act of humanity. Having been so focused on solving our problems, I was anticipating the worst: Anger, not having a roof over our heads, a lawsuit.
But I wasn't prepared for words of compassion.
I felt compelled to share my gratefulness with others.
"I had to email my landlord to tell him that, for the first time in my life, I wouldn't be able to pay the rent. That all of my work contracts for months have canceled. That I needed to feed my 3 kids," I wrote on Twitter. "His incredibly supportive response made me cry." I included a screenshot of the email.
This set off a chain reaction of hope and positive energy. "Thank you for sharing. Everyone is struggling right now emotionally and spiritually," someone wrote. "A glimpse of human kindness goes far. Stay strong."
Others talked about how their landlords were less forgiving, but even that seemed to forge unity. Landlords also chimed in: "I WISH I could just not charge them rent, but unfortunately it's my only income," one woman wrote, adding that she told a tenant he can pay whatever he can now, and the rest when his benefits arrive.
"I didn't wait," another landlord responded. "I reached out to my tenants and let them know that I won't collect rent if they are stuck." As I watched the responses come in, I felt less alone.
Suddenly, an upcoming milestone came to mind. April 13 will mark the 21st year since I was diagnosed with suicidal major depressive disorder. I call it my "depressiversary," and it's significant because it reminds me that I'm still alive, that I was strong enough to overcome the hopelessness and despair of depression.
We still have a long, difficult road ahead of us. Some have it harder than others. But, as my landlord emphasized, this is a battle we're all fighting together. My only hope is that we continue to acknowledge the little acts of mercy and kindness that help make this time easier, even if just a little.
Mark Henick is a public speaker and mental health advocate. He previously served as the youngest member of the Mental Health Commission of Canada's board of directors. Mark has been featured in The Globe and Mail, CNN, The Chicago Tribune and The Independent, among many others. Follow him on Twitter @MarkHenick.