Calgarians experiencing homelessness forced to choose between warmth and pets

Losing your home in the middle of winter is a desperate situation. But going to a shelter isn't a simple solution for Calgarians experiencing homeless who have pets.

There are no shelters in the city that accommodate animals, posing problems during cold snap

Boston and his owner were picked up by Parachutes for Pets in Calgary and taken to the Strathmore Overnight Shelter so that they could stay warm and wouldn’t be separated. (Submitted by Melissa David)

Losing your home in the middle of winter is a desperate situation. 

But going to a shelter isn't a simple solution for Calgarians experiencing homelessness who have pets.

There are no shelters in the city that accommodate animals.

"It's heartbreaking for them because they're like, what do you mean the only choice I have is to get rid of my pet?" says Melissa David, founder of Parachutes for Pets

"We don't want them making those choices."

No matter the season, Parachutes for Pets hands out packs of supplies for unhoused owners.

An example of what’s in a canine pet pack handed out to dog owners in need by Parachutes for Pets. (Submitted by Melissa David)

But David said the prolonged deep freeze has left Albertans with few options.

"It's tough because we can offer a homeless pet pack, but there's nothing we can put in that pet pack that's going to save their life in a cold snap," she said.

Her organization has now started working with a small shelter in Strathmore to transport pets and owners without homes to warmth and safety. 

Elizabeth Karp is the executive director of the Strathmore Overnight Shelter. 

She emphasized that the organization's ability to accept pets comes down to the smaller capacity at the shelter.

"You can imagine if you have shelters that have three, four hundred people, even a couple hundred people, you have more obstacles, like allergies or way too many dogs, you can't control it," Karp said. 

Karp's shelter is able to accommodate about 20 clients, but not everyone can necessarily bring their pets.

As a dog trainer herself, Karp notes that the animals they do accept in Strathmore have to be well-behaved and kept clean. 

She thinks that pets make a big difference calming people in what can be a difficult scenario, but stresses that she doesn't think anyone is being intentionally cruel by not allowing pets in their shelters.

"Your priority is to keep the people safe, and animals are secondary in that situation," she said. 

"Not that they're not important, but they simply don't have the facilities to accommodate it." 

Options in Calgary

In a statement to CBC News, Sandra Clarkson, executive director of the Calgary Drop-In Centre, explains that the organization's "current facilities and protocols do not allow" for pets.

"We are currently examining perceived or real barriers that prevent vulnerable people from utilizing the continuum of services offered at the DI. We continue to explore new options to make emergency shelter as accessible as possible so we may work with individuals on permanent solutions to end their experience of being unhoused," the statement reads.

Clarkson noted that Calgary Animal Services offers to board pets at no cost for those trying to transition to independent housing. 

"Thankfully, the city of Calgary is lucky to have the great work being done by groups such as Parachutes for Pets to fill the gaps in the meantime," she said.

Parachutes for Pets is a Calgary organization that hands out hampers of supplies for pet owners facing homelessness. (Submitted by Parachutes for Pets)

But for one outspoken Calgary activist working to end homelessness, the promise of action falls flat.

"I recently was touring East Hastings in Vancouver and they have many pet-friendly shelters," said Chaz Smith, founder of Be The Change YYC, a homeless outreach team.

"It was essentially a storage room that had dog crates in it on one side, cat crates on the other, and so what struck me is how simple the setup actually was for people experiencing homelessness to have a safe place for their pet to be overnight." 

Smith added that being with your four-legged companion is one of many barriers preventing people from using shelters. 

"We have one of the largest shelters in North America here in Calgary," Smith said.

"Other cities have Indigenous shelters, they have LGBTQ2S shelters, they have pet-friendly shelters, and so these are just some of the examples of what could be barriers to access." 

It's a sentiment that David can add to, after working through the hesitancy of her clients to get them and their pets transported safely to Strathmore. 

Bruno and his owner were happy to rest in a warm space after being transported to Strathmore on Jan. 4. (Submitted by Melissa David)

"Almost the first thing out of their mouth is, 'I'm not going to be separated from my pet, but we're freezing,'" said David. 

"They're scared, they don't even want to tell us right away where they are or who they are because they're afraid that maybe we're going to come and take their pet — but they need help."

She wants Calgarians to adjust who they think of when they think of those experiencing homelessness.

"I can tell you that I've personally delivered hampers to seniors living in their cars, so the vision that people may have about a homeless person might not be reality — it's you and me, it's our parents, it's our grandparents that are out there with their pets."

David and the Parachutes for Pets team said they are ready for an opportunity to set up the first pet-friendly shelter in Calgary — all they need is space.

"If Strathmore can do this, we can do this."