Matthew Boudreau lives on the streets of Vancouver, and has battled severe drug addictions since the age of 15. Eleven months ago, he stopped using drugs and credits his new puppy, Bourbon, for helping him stay clean.
“It’s that little girl right there,” he says, adding that the responsibility for his dog is one of his main motivations to stay away from drugs.
Boudreau is one of a growing number of Vancouver’s homeless with pets. This trend is helping some homeless people find a bit of companionship and safety on the streets, until they look for shelter. Currently only one shelter in Vancouver is able to accommodate homeless pet owners and their animals, and another is under construction.
“For many homeless people in this city, having an animal can be a huge barrier to services,” said Michelle Clausius, of Covenant House. It is starting a $5 million renovation this month that will include dog friendly facilities because of the increasing number of homeless pet owners.
Rob Laross, originally from Winnipeg, now lives on the streets in Vancouver’s West End with an 11-month old dog. Laross finds it difficult to find shelter in Vancouver. “In Montreal, just about every shelter will let you bring in your dog,” said Laross.
Tamara Shoup, assistant manager of the Yukon Shelter, the only shelter in the city that accommodates pets, said animals and owners are allowed to stay in the same room. “We actually consider any pet to be a part of a person’s family and they should be kept together at all times,” said Shoup.
Over the past 35 years pet guests at the shelter have included every animal from rats to snakes, birds, dogs and cats. “Pets provide unconditional love. I think that homeless people have pets because this is the last of their considered family,” said Shoup.
SPCA Chief Animal Health Officer, Dr. James Lawson said his organization supports homeless pet owners. “An animal gives them a grounding, centering or focusing to their daily lives. Many of these people will go out and scrounge or beg to look after their pet’s needs before they look after their own needs.”
However, Lawson is also keen to promote responsible pet ownership. The SPCA runs a doggy-food bank called Charlie’s Food Bank every Thursday morning and distributes dog and cat food as well as kitty-litter to homeless pet owners who have difficulties providing for their animals. Serving nearly 100 homeless pet owners every week, they also run a free monthly vet clinic.
“We don’t have the money to go and do expensive diagnostic procedures, but we can vaccinate [the animals], and talk about nutrition and general pet health and pet care,” said Lawson.
“We can also offer some flea treatment and de-wormers. Just some of the basic health needs that an animal might have.”
Directions Youth Services Centre, a 24-hour drop-in centre for homeless youth, provides short-term kenneling services for clients, and finds responsible pet ownership to be the norm.
“In one or two incidents, our observations have left us unsettled in the condition of the animal or the treatment of the animal, but typically the youth are taking proper care of nutrition, health and general care,” said John Kehler, a director at Directions.
The SPCA’s policy is to intervene when an animal is in distress. “Whether they’re homeless or not, if the person wasn’t willing to or wasn’t able to relieve that distress, we’re obligated by law to remove the animal from that person’s presence and get veterinary care for it,” said Lawson. He made it clear that homelessness alone would never be the reason why an animal would be removed.
Whether it’s for safety or companionship, homeless people with pets are feeling new senses of responsibility. “He’s not just a dog to me, he’s my very best friend,” said Laross.