Since she was four years old, Jill Baron has been a devoted owner of many cats, dogs, birds and rodents. She even volunteered at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for 11 years. But last winter, Baron became homeless. Despite cold weather and colder criticism, Baron continues to care for three rats and two cats on the streets of Vancouver, British Columbia.
On a Commercial Drive sidewalk -- in front of a Mr. Pets franchise -- Baron sits cross-legged, reading a book. In front of her, she props up a small notebook that simply reads: 'It's easy to ignore me, but I do need your help.'
"I've gone without food for an entire day -- many, many days -- to make sure my pets ate well. Not just ate, but ate well," she says, while motioning toward the rats tucked away in her jacket. "My oldest rat ever was seven years and four months old -- which is impossible for a rat. They usually only live one to three years."
Baron is just one of many homeless people in Vancouver who own a pet. Although many people think the homeless should not be allowed to care for animals, research shows a pet can be an important survival tool for homeless people.
But homeless pet owners, until recently, have been largely left out in the cold. Just last year, most shelters in Vancouver would not allow pets to stay with their handlers. However, five new shelters that accept pets have finally given homeless pet owners and their companions a chance to get off the streets.
Mya Wollf, manager of the newly opened Stanley/New Fountain Shelter on Cordova Street, believes the city's new shelters will help people like Baron get back on their feet and into permanent residences.
"Vancouver is moving in the right direction with pet allowances in shelters," Wollf says.
Since December, when municipal and provincial governments and a nonprofit teamed up to open five emergency, low-barrier shelters, they have put a roof over the heads of dozens of pets and their owners.
"We've got two dogs right now," Wollf says. "It improves the morale just having a nice fuzzy creature around."
In the small dimly lit common room of the 28-bed shelter, a few friends fuss over a small white lapdog named Sarah.
"Sarah is a people dog," owner Deborah Lowry says. "Everybody says she's so cute."
Lowry and her dog have been staying at the New Fountain for the past two weeks. During her stay, the shelter has provided free food and treats for her closest companion. So far, Wollf says the shelter's four-legged patrons have not caused much trouble.
"I think there was just once when a dog got angry. It was because an owner was fighting, and was resolved really easily," she says. "Most of the animals are fantastic."
Despite the positive experiences of shelter workers like Wollf, many homeless pet owners wrestle with the stigma that they are unfit to care for their pets. Baron says it's a minority of abusive owners who ruin the reputations of the majority.
"It doesn't help [that] there are people with dogs who are alcoholics or crack addicts, treating their dogs like crap," Baron says. "People just look at them with disgust and turn around and look at us with disgust because we're also homeless and we also have pets."
Baron puts great effort into protecting her animals from the cold and offers them the same food she eats. She says the relationship shared with her pets is beyond description.
"I don't think there's any words for it. It's what has kept me alive," she says. "They have priority over everything else in my life."
Kim Monteith, an animal welfare supervisor for the BC SPCA, says homeless pet owners like Baron defy negative stereotypes.
"Some see these people in the street and think, 'They can't take care of themselves -- how can they take care of their dog?' In reality, they are the first to call me if something goes wrong."
Monteith says street pets are generally pleasant and well-adjusted animals.
"The dogs are really well socialized because they're exposed to everybody and everything," she says. "It's funny because they're homeless, but they're not. If they're with their guardian, pets don't care where they live."
Dale McMann, Vancouver director of BC Housing, recognizes the importance of the human-animal bond. "There is now plenty of data that indicates pets provide their owners with a great deal of security and companionship," he says. "Oftentimes, if people cannot bring their pet into a shelter they'll choose to stay on the street."
By allowing pets, shopping carts and other personal belongings in shelters, McMann hopes fewer people will choose to sleep outdoors. "This is a way of ensuring they are inside -- that they're accessing those shelters," he added.
When she can afford it, Baron prefers to stay in a private room at a hostel. "They don't mind my rats running around the room, which other places tend to have a problem with."
Although temporary shelters offering pet-friendly accommodations are becoming more common, the number of social housing buildings that allow animals remains about the same. McMann estimated about half of Vancouver's SROs and social housing projects let residents keep pets.
"I think everybody is starting to realize the importance of pets," says Monteith. "All the shelters have been really supportive."