The Sunday Magazine

'This is the lifeline. This is the friend': Why pets matter to homeless people

David Gutnick tells the story of some of the bonds between the homeless and their canine and feline companions in his documentary, The Guardians.

In Montreal, a group of volunteers and veterinarians provides support to the homeless and their companions

François St-Hilaire and Doudoune have been together for 22 years. (David Gutnick/CBC )

"Come on in," says François St-Hilaire, opening the door to the neat, one-bedroom apartment he rents in downtown Montreal. 

"I'm back, Doudoune," he says. A grey tabby jumps off the bed and into St-Hilaire's arms.

Doudoune and St-Hilaire have been together for 22 years — for 14 of them, outside, on the street.

Four winters ago, on a bitterly cold night, patrollers looking to persuade homeless people to take refuge in a shelter spotted a cat under a bridge. 

They watched as it slipped into a pile of cardboard and blankets and disappeared from sight.

If it wasn't for his cat, he would have been dead.- Susan Clarke

When they began removing the pieces of cardboard to look for the cat, they found St-Hilaire, clutching Doudone in his frozen fingers. 

Susan Clarke, one of the volunteers who cooks and distributes meals to homeless Montrealers, visits François St-Hilaire and Doudoune. (David Gutnick/CBC)

St-Hilaire lost four fingers and part of his thumb on his right hand. While in hospital, he met with counsellors who helped him get a new start.

"If it wasn't for his cat, he would have been dead," said Susan Clarke, one of the founders of Calling All Angels, a small group of volunteers that cook and distribute meals to homeless Montrealers. 

"His cat kept him warm."

Since befriending St-Hilaire, Clarke has found out how important pets can be for people like him.

"The cat is his life: it's his brother or his sister or his baby," she said.

Since that night under the bridge, the lives of St-Hilaire and Doudoune have changed radically.

Doudoune spends her days curled up on a favourite pillow in the small apartment. In the kitchen, St-Hilaire makes sandwiches, then heads outdoors to hand them out to people sleeping in the same parks where he and Doudone used to live. 

Each others' lifelines

On sidewalks in front of grocery stores or huddled with blankets on park benches, no matter how terrible the weather, homeless people with pets trudge up city streets. Mostly dogs, but there are also cats, and occasionally, ferrets. Even parrots.

It is estimated that one in 10 homeless people in Canada has pets, although getting exact numbers is impossible.

John Picard lived on the street for a month because he couldn't find an apartment where he'd be allowed to keep his two dogs, Sasha and Pebbles. (David Gutnick/CBC)

The humans are often deeply troubled, but their pets don't know that. Just like their owners, they need food, water, companionship and a place to sleep.

Most shelters and soup kitchens do not allow pets, nor do many landlords of inexpensive apartments.

So people with pets squat in abandoned buildings, sleep in parks or under bridges. They would rather remain homeless than abandon their pets or leave them outside while they are in a shelter. 

The pets and the people are lifelines for each other. 

In Montreal, they're supported by a few generous veterinarians and an informal network of women on a mission.

Bandit saves Robert's life

"Bandit has golden eyes like a lion. He's got big floppy ears. He's the most important guy in my life," Robert Young said of his bull mastiff.

Young, in his mid-30s, is sitting under a pile of ragged blankets inside the doors of a Montreal subway station on a –20 C morning. Bandit is curled up beside him. 

"I get ridiculed from some people," Young said. "They think you are a bad dog owner."

"My dog is with me 24/7, walking around all day long. Where is your dog? Locked inside for eight hours a day, all by himself."

Robert Young and his friend Bandit, seen here with Young's friend Emily, spend their days in Montreal subway stations. (David Gutnick/CBC)

A couple of years ago, Bandit helped save his life, Young says.

"I was really strung out on heroin and I overdosed," he recalled. "Bandit was tied to my belt and started freaking out, and that was the only way that people found me." 

Today, Young has a prescription for methadone. His monthly welfare cheque brings in a little more than $600. He spends it on beer, drugs, and food for himself and Bandit.

In his backpack, Young keeps a few extra shirts, pants, underwear and socks. Everything else in it is for Bandit. There is a dog harness, a jar of Vaseline to protect his paws from road salt, a green knitted dog jacket, a plastic water bowl, and a couple of kilograms of kibble and treats.

Sabrina Sabbah's velvet heart

Six blocks away from Young and Bandit's perch, Sabrina Sabbah parks in front of Notre-Dame-de-la-Salette Catholic Church on Park Avenue. The back seat and trunk of her SUV is chock-a-block.

"This is how I drive around: bags of dog food, poopy bags, clothing, blankets."

Susan Clarke, Sabrina Sabbah and Catherine Sorenson load dog food, blankets and sleeping bags into Sabbah's car for distribution. (David Gutnick/CBC)

She's come to bring dog supplies to homeless people hanging out at The Open Door, one of the few day shelters in Montreal that allows pets. Here, you can get a hot meal, take a shower and nap on a mattress, right next to your animal.

Sabbah met a number of homeless people and their pets when she was part of a successful fight against a Montreal bylaw banning pitbulls. At the time, she wondered why someone who was homeless would keep a pet, complicating an already difficult life.

"Very quickly I realized that it is not a burden for them," she said. "It is the opposite. It is a sense of purpose and it's a connection. They need that to function. For them, the animal is everything."

Sabbah founded Velvet Hearts to help them out. At The Open Door, Nicolas — who does not want to give his last name — has been sleeping beside his dog Tommy. He eagerly accepts Sabbah's gift of a harness, tucking it into a backpack that's about as big as he is.

"How many people would you say approach you in a positive way because of Tommy?" Sabbah asks him. "Everybody, right?"

"So suddenly, you are no longer invisible. You are a dog guardian — just like I am."

When Sabbah learns that Tommy has not been vaccinated, she tells Nicolas she knows a vet who will treat him for free.

A visit with Dr. Drooker

"This is the most wonderful vet clinic in the world," said Sabbah, drawing up to a modest storefront in the working-class Montreal neighbourhood of Pointe Saint-Charles. "They are literally the only vet clinic who offered to take our cases for free."

Dr. James Drooker charges clients on a sliding scale of standard fees for people who can afford to pay to nothing for pet owners who are unable to.

Dr. James Drooker with Pebbles who is in foster care because his owner is living in a shelter for abused women. Pebbles has since been adopted by another family. (David Gutnick/CBC)

"We call it our Pet Project," the veterinarian said. "Can we basically be a full service — anytime — free service for homeless individuals with pets? They don't have to wait for whatever of the month to wait to call; we are going to get them in like any other appointment."

Drooker says for many pet owners who are homeless, their animal is the only stable relationship in their lives. 

"This is the lifeline. This is the friend. This is who you tell your secrets to. You have to see that and support it," said Drooker.

"If we don't, we're going to make life worse for a lot of people." 

From homeless to a PhD

The profound connection between homeless people and their pets is obvious to anyone who pays attention as noted in research papers and studies.

Caroline Leblanc knows this world from two sides: a Trudeau scholar, she is doing her PhD on the rights of homeless people. She did her master's thesis on the relationship between homeless people and their pets. 

A few years ago, Leblanc was a high school dropout living on the streets of Montreal and Toronto with her dog Draft. 

Caroline Leblanc's PhD research looks at the rights of the homeless and their pets. Pictured right: When she was living on the streets, Caroline Leblanc and Draft were inseparable. (David Gutnick/CBC/Submitted by Caroline Leblanc)

"My dog taught me a lot about love, about how to take care of myself, " she said. Leblanc remembers the day when she looked at Draft, and she felt the dog was asking her, "Mom, can we stop moving around?" 

With help from a shelter, Caroline managed to pay for her university tuition after enrolling as a mature student. She had found her calling.

"I went to university so people can listen to me," she said. "I can change the world for the people who still live on the street, to show this society it is important to take care of both at the same time: the animal and the homeless person."

Back in the subway

Robert Young has had a tough week. 

He's sitting on the freezing concrete floor in a different subway station. Bandit is curled up in a ball, his head on Young's lap. 

Young's face is pale; his nose is dripping; he's wheezing.

He is sick and drunk or high — or a combination of all three. 

But when you have a little boy like Bandit that loves you as much as he does — I can't imagine killing myself.- Robert Young

Young's hungry, so he gets up off the concrete and snaps a leash onto Bandit's harness. 

"When you are on the street and there is nothing left, everything is hopeless and it's freezing cold out, all you want to do is to make enough money so you can do a shot of heroin so that you are nice and warm and never wake up," Young said.

"But when you have a little boy like Bandit that loves you as much as he does — I can't imagine killing myself. That would be greedy, and leaving my dog all alone like that — I would not break my dog's heart, ever."

A few days later, Young overdoses on heroin and is back in hospital. His friend Sophie Fournier, who runs a dog rescue service, Sophie's Dog Adoption, steps in to take care of Bandit. And then Young gets out of hospital and gets Bandit back.

But that's another story.

Written and produced by David Gutnick