On a frigid December night in Calgary, a street outreach worker approaches a man walking with a well-kept German shepherd wearing a plaid jacket and asks if the dog has enough food.
“He’s got more food than I do,” the man replies.
The dog’s food and the jacket were from Parachutes for Pets, a charity that provides subsidized pet care, including food hampers and medical treatment, to low-income Calgarians.
Melissa David, who founded the charity, says the demand is ballooning as the cost of living skyrockets. Last year, her group gave out 3,000 hampers. This year, the number will be over 5,000.
“I’ve never seen demand like this in four years. During COVID, at times, it was high and I said: ‘Let’s just get through COVID,'” she said in an interview.
“Now we’ve got through that for the most part, we’re battling this inflation rate, which is worse than COVID ever was.”
David said inflation is forcing people from their homes and if they are lucky enough to find another residence, keeping a pet can require a $500 pet deposit.
“So more and more people every single day are moving to either low-cost hotels or just their cars. I think since Friday between 22 and 23 people contacted me that were homeless right before the holidays,” she said.
“I’ve done three cases in the past 10 days where seniors are living in their cars because they can’t afford their medication and their food on top of their pet food. Pet food has almost doubled.”
Parachutes for Pets has become a full-time obsession for David, who also works as an RCMP analyst. She said some of the most heartbreaking calls she receives are from victims of domestic violence.
“I went to one lady in the middle of the night. She still had blood on her face. She couldn’t go and seek help because she wasn’t going to leave her dog to go to hospital,” David said.
The woman had fled her home and called her from the street.
“I opened the pet first aid kit I have in my car and I cleaned up her face because she said ‘I’m not leaving so whatever has to be done has to be done here because me and my dog are not separating.'”
David said the organization found her a hotel and arranged for medical assistance.
She has been working for years to find a way to open up a pet-friendly homeless shelter to care for those people unwilling to be separated from their best friends.
David said she hasn’t given up and hopes anyone with vacant space might be able to help.
“Anybody who would like to work with us to make a heckuva change, we’re willing. Our team is ready to execute this. We’ve been ready for four years.”
Only one shelter in the region accepts animals along with their humans and that’s in the town of Strathmore, 53 kilometres east of Calgary. The Strathmore Overnight Shelter only has room for about 20 people.
“We allow people to bring their pets in because it’s all they have. Sometimes we have to talk them into fostering them out if they aren’t able to take care of them enough,” said Elizabeth Karp, a pastor from Harvest Healing Centre Church, which built the shelter.
Karp, who is also a dog trainer, understands the bond between owner and animal.
“I certainly understand they don’t want to part with them. That’s all they have and it’s what’s keeping them going and, so as long as they got along with each other and with people, they’re allowed to bring them in,” she added.
Karp said at one point this week the shelter had four dogs and three cats among its residents.
The shelter, largely run by volunteers, is usually only open at night but Karp said with the recent drop in temperatures it’s been operating during the day as well.