With homelessness reaching epidemic proportions in Montreal, the city's iconic hospital will now serve as a lifeline not only for people, but also their pets.
The former Royal Victoria Hospital — a site that has been closed since 2015 — will shelter the city's most vulnerable during the harshest months of winter beginning on Jan. 15.
While the program, managed by several local groups, will only run until April 15, the extra beds come at a crucial time for a city grappling with homelessness.
"No one is indifferent to this situation, which is just as disturbing as it is worrying," Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante told reporters at a press conference last month. "It was therefore imperative for us to quickly meet with all of our partners to find solutions."
Among the city's 2 million residents, about 3,000 spend their nights on the streets on any given night. Available shelter beds, on the other hand, are estimated at around 1,000.
While only adding about 80 beds to that capacity, the project's decision to let people bring their pets may get people out of the cold who would otherwise be turned away at more restrictive shelters.
"What we've been finding over the years is that our places are absolutely full to bursting," Matthew Pearce, president and CEO of the Old Brewery Mission, tells MNN.
The organization, which will help run the shelter, has been lobbying the city to create more space for years.
"All the beds are occupied. And people still come to our doors," Pearce says. "We've been accommodating them — so we don't turn people away in the cold — on the floor of our cafeteria, for example.
"This is not dignified. This is not humane. This is not the proper way host people in an organization that seeks to move people out of homelessness and back into society. It's not an expression of respect for the individual or a sense that they have a place in society — to tell them they have to go and sleep on the floor."
Some people don't even get a chance to be indoors, choosing instead to brave the brutal cold alongside their pets. The site of the former hospital won't force people to make that decision, reserving a special space within its walls for animals.
"None of the existing main resources for homelessness are equipped in such a way as to allow pets to come in," Pearce explains. "These are people who, because of that, are left without an option. At least in winter, let's give them an option."
The tide is turning
While the overwhelming majority of shelters, of all types, don't allow pets, the situation may be starting to change. There are even online tools that help people find pet-friendly shelters across the U.S.
Other shelters, like Ahimsa House in Atlanta, place pets in foster homes while survivors of domestic abuse get the help they need. The eventual reunions between people and their pets can also be a powerful step on the road to recovery — for both animal and human.
"We've seen incredible experiences of animals behavior turning around when they get back with their owners," Ahimsa House executive director Myra Rasnick told MNN at the time.
At the old Royal Victoria Hospital, at least for a few months, people won't have to spend a second apart from their furry friends — companions that have stood at their side through the most difficult times.
And neither will have to bed down on a cold hard floor.
"When we're full," Pearce says. "Instead of having people sleep on the floors of cafeterias in unsanitary environments, we can now put them in this place."