'It can happen to anybody': This centre is providing a safe haven for people — and their pets
Toronto's St. Felix Centre offers warmth and support to all people and their pets, thanks to recently launched program to extend care to animals.
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This summer, rather than be separated from his pet, Mike made the decision to sleep in a one-man tent with a 41-kilogram dog.
“It was warm, and he is a great summer dog,” said Mike. “My buddy gave me a tent. A one-man tent,” he said. “It is almost a cocoon.”
His companion was a Mastiff-Rottweiler cross named Diesel. Mike adopted him when he was just three-weeks old and the lion-headed, brindled canine can’t bear to leave his side.
“I bottle-fed him for three weeks. I am like a surrogate mother to this dog,” he said.
Mike spoke with the Star in the stairwell at the St. Felix Centre, a multi-service agency and 24/7 cold weather service drop-in where the pair were staying in late November. He asked that his last name not be used.
“He is the biggest suck. He loves me to death,” said Mike, of Diesel, who at one point was snoring in his lap.
They had been sleeping in the tent in Toronto’s ravine system, said Mike, because a roommate didn’t pay rent and got them evicted. Owning a large dog makes finding housing or accepting any of the several offers he has for work difficult, said Mike.
“When I got the dog I had financial stability, I had a great place, a great backyard. I wouldn’t have taken on this responsibility of this dog with no income,” he said.
They turned to St. Felix on Augusta Ave. when the temperature dropped because the agency welcomes people and their pets.
The centre provides everything from housing and medical care to mental health and employment services. Over the winter St. Felix acts as a 24/7 cold weather drop-in, one of several run out of non-profit agencies, for the city.
They can’t offer beds, but lay out cots for people to rest on and provide snacks and warm and cold drinks.
They always welcomed animals, but this year they officially launched a program called Pets: Accommodating Wishes and Support, or P.A.W.S.
People can donate to the program, or specific pets. Owners can apply for up to $300 for health care, including micro-chipping, spaying and neutering, flea treatments and prescription medications. It is not limited to dogs.
“To us, a pet, is a pet, is a pet,” said executive director, Brian Harris. “Many of our guests would choose to stay outside if their pet wasn’t allowed to come in with them.”
St. Felix isn’t the only drop-in where people can bring their animals.
Sistering, a women-only drop-in on Bloor St. allows women to sleep with or alongside cats and dogs. Like St. Felix, there are no beds. At Sistering, women line up to get a spot on about a dozen reclining chairs and the rest curl up on mats on the floor, sometimes beneath tables.
The St. Felix office was already a pet-friendly space, and staff includes a 4-year-old Dalmatian named Hailey and 6-month-old Pug-terrier-Chihuahua cross named Jigsaw.
Harris said they had always made room for pets and provided food and shelter, but wanted to make it official and get the word out to people who might need help supporting their animal companions.
“A person’s entire support network can be their pet,” said Harris, adding St. Felix staff felt it was important those companions were also well looked after.
Tomas Mirabelli, drop-in co-ordinator and owner of Jigsaw, said the dogs help clients feel welcome. Jigsaw, who reservedly accepted treats from a Star reporter, spends much of his day interacting with guests. In the morning he insists on greeting several regular clients before entering the office, said Mirabelli.
When Mike spoke with the Star, he and Diesel had been staying at St. Felix for about a week and a half, sharing a mat in an upstairs floor of the building.
At 41-kilograms and sporting a chain-link collar and a booming bark, Diesel appears intimidating, but at 13 months is still a bit of a puppy and is clearly incredibly bonded with his owner. Diesel’s parents died when he was three weeks old, and Mike adopted him to prevent the puppy from being euthanized.
They lost housing after Mike moved to Toronto for work. He said he was evicted because the man he was subletting from didn’t pay rent. He found another place for them to stay, but the apartment was not suited for a large dog so they “took to the woods,” or the ravines across the city, explained Mike. At St. Felix, both he and his dog are fed, and Diesel was also outfitted with a new, donated dog coat to ward off the winter chill.
Mike has offers for work, but needs to find a place that will take him and a dog that will bark when he is at work and needs a sitter.
“I had no money. I have a big dog. I don’t have a co-signer. I have bad credit, and I don’t exist on paper,” or paperwork with a Toronto address on it, he explained.
Caring for a large dog without a roof over their heads was not something he could have planned for, neither was losing housing, said Mike.
“It can happen to anybody lightning fast.”
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