Pet support: Calgary group raising funds for animal-friendly homeless shelter

CALGARY — Chaz Smith has seen some homeless people have to make the heartbreaking decision of having a warm bed for a night or staying outside with their furry friends.

“We don’t have any pet-friendly shelters in Calgary, so when these people experiencing homelessness realize that, they either move on to different cities or, unfortunately, they have to get rid of their pets,” says Smith, executive director of Be The Change YYC, a downtown Calgary homeless outreach team.

“I just worked with a client this winter in Calgary when we had that crazy storm that hit and it was -36 C. She was living in her vehicle because she had her dog and for her mental health she did not want to give up that dog.”

Smith said his team was able to get the woman and her dog into housing.

But there need to be other options for those living on the streets with pets, he says.

“When you’re experiencing homelessness, the last thing you want is to give up the natural supports that you have — and pets, of course, are that.”

There are homeless shelters in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal that allow residents to keep their animals with them.

The lack of such a shelter in Calgary, along with an increasing number of abandoned and neglected pets in the city, caught the attention of Melissa David.

David started a charity called Parachutes for Pets, which provides subsidized pet care for low-income residents. Now she’s hoping to raise $30,000 through a GoFundMe campaign to open a pet-friendly homeless shelter.

“We need to be able to do something about this,” she says.

David, surrounded by her three dogs, says it’s easy to empathize with homeless people who have to choose between staying in a shelter or being with their animals.

“It would be horrible. I couldn’t do it. I definitely would be on the streets if I had to choose.”

If enough money is raised, she plans to open a 25-bed shelter with space for expansion. If successful, it might also accommodate domestic violence victims who are afraid to leave their animals behind.

John Rook is managing director of The Mustard Seed street ministry, which operates a 370-bed homeless shelter in Calgary. He wants to work with David to make her idea happen.

He says many of the city’s homeless have mental-health issues or have fallen on hard times — and pets provide emotional support.

“We have dozens and dozens of people who show up with pets,” he says.

“We did have a woman who came to the shelter and she had three cats. And we couldn’t accommodate the cats, so she slept in her car in our parking lot with the cats.”

Rook says when he toured a shelter run by the Fred Victor Centre in Toronto, he saw a woman in a room with her cat sleeping at the foot of her bed.

The same thing should be available for the homeless in Calgary, he says.

“They love their animal as part of their family. It’s absolutely critical that people be allowed to keep their animals.”

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