Kelowna homeless shelters welcome pets for all the right reasons

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"THE MOST UNUSUAL WAS A MINI BANTAM ROOSTER THE LADY WOULD WALK ON A LEASH."

KELOWNA – For some Kelowna residents, their pet is the only family they have left.

Many have had them for years and they are too old to adopt. So when something like a job loss, rental sale or sudden loss of income happens in Kelowna, a city with one of the lowest rental availability rates in Canada, homelessness becomes a realistic threat.

But what happens to their two, four and sometimes even eight-legged friends?

Local shelters like the Kelowna Gospel Mission and Inn from the Cold have longstanding policies of making special arrangements for guests with fur, feathers and fangs. They want people to use their shelters and realize that a no pet policy would just create one more barrier for people already struggling.

Sonja Menves is manager of volunteers at the Kelowna Gospel Mission downtown, the busiest shelter in the city. And when temperatures drop in the winter, mats are put down and capacity is greatly increased.

“We’re really finding right now with the (vacancy rate) so low, we’ve had a few people who have been sold out of their homes,” she says. “We had one fellow here who lost his rental and found another place but then that was sold as well.”

The Central Okanagan Foundation estimates 20 per cent of roughly 230 people experiencing homelessness in Kelowna were evicted for being unable to pay rent and 17 per cent are on the streets because of a family conflict. Only 11 per cent are there because of addiction or substance abuse.

The average rent in Kelowna and surrounding areas rose 4.5 per cent to $976 last month, while the vacancy rate sits somewhere between zero and 0.8 per cent, according to the latest report from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. With social assistance provided to people amounting to as little as $610 per month, it’s not hard to see why there are more homeless people in Kelowna every year.

“Some people will take care of their pets before they’ll take care of themselves,” Menves says. “To many people it’s their family so for us to turn away their pets would be like turning away their family.”

The Gospel Mission has a heated room with crates and cages, water and food donated by the Kelowna SPCA and Inn from the Cold allows animals in rooms.

“We have mostly dogs with us, we’ve had a few cats and guinea pigs but the most unusual was a mini bantam rooster that the lady would walk on a leash,” Menves says.

Inn from the Cold executive director Jan Schulz says they once had a client who kept a live tarantula in his shirt and even terrified of spiders she provided it a warm place to spend the night just as she would a human in need.

Menves says even though having animals around can be therapeutic for staff and clients, it comes with headaches as well.

“We do what we can with what we have,” she says. “We’ve found over the years the cages don’t always work. We once had a cat stay and he managed to escape and got stuck between the wall and a storage unit. The cat was meowing like crazy so one of our guests called the fire department. They came and got him out but it took a while. That was the most excitement we had that week.”

Menves says they will keep allowing clients to bring animals with them or drop them off for an hour while they go to an appointment for as long as they're able.

“There hasn’t been a situation where we had to turn a pet away,” she says. “We just ask that the people who use our services... take them out and walk them, but people are really good. I think they’re grateful. They love their pets.”


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