It’s a Thursday morning in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and there are a number of lineups forming outside buildings along a three-block corridor of Powell Street.
People with low incomes — or sometimes no incomes and without a permanent home — are seeking simple comforts: a warm cup of coffee, another layer of clothing to brace against the chilly nights, a bit of basic medical attention, a meal, or just someone to talk to.
At one lineup outside 543 Powell St. however, some of the clientele seem a little wild and woolly. In fact, a commotion is gathering steam as a “celebrity” approaches.
A diminutive little dog in a puffy, pink vest wearing shiny, coloured boots is high-stepping towards the adulation of admirers.
It’s Love V., L.V. to her friends, a.k.a. the Princess of Chinatown. She pauses and holds her head high as fans take pictures with their phones.
“She’s used to the paparazzi,” laughs her owner, Gen Berde, who cleans the streets for Embers Eastside Works. “She’s always fashionable and she gets invited to a lot of parties.”
Today, the furry fashionista is making a stop at Charlie’s Pet Food Bank, where every Thursday between 10 a.m. and 12 noon, the BC SPCA-run organization opens its doors to offer free basic animal care for pet owners who would not otherwise be able to afford it.
L.V. is a six-year-old chihuahua-terrier cross — a rescue dog from Mexico that Berde adopted as a six-month-old puppy. The outfit the dog is modelling is an ensemble she got from Charlie’s four years ago.
Started in 2000 by then-BC SPCA chief animal health officer Dr. Jamie Lawson and the Greater Vancouver Food Bank, Charlie’s is named after an emaciated dog that came into the animal hospital in critical condition. Sadly, the BC SPCA was unable to save Charlie, despite providing three weeks of intensive care.
The friendly, accessible clinic is Charlie’s legacy. For more than 20 years, Charlie’s has provided free and low-cost pet services for pet owners who are unhoused, living outdoors, or on low and fixed incomes in downtown Vancouver.
Diane Waters, the co-ordinator of Charlie’s Pet Food Bank and a BC SPCA outreach specialist, oversees a group of volunteers who deliver the services. Waters, who is not a veterinarian herself, is a psychology grad with degrees in counselling and human development. She did her practicum at the BC SPCA and then began volunteering. She went on to spend four-and-a-half years as an animal care technician for the City of Surrey before returning to the BC SPCA in 2020 to take over the running of Charlie’s.
“I’ve always had a passion for vulnerable people and animals,” she says. “And [Charlie’s] naturally lined up.”
Suzanne Kilroy-Huculak, a longtime Megaphone vendor, says for her, Charlie’s is a godsend.
“Charlie’s really helps,” she says. “Diane keeps track of stuff for me.”
Kilroy-Huculak sometimes works five jobs to pay her rent and feed her human family. For the past four years, Charlie’s has eased the burden of taking care of her three fur babies: Shadow, an 11-year-old long-haired Himalayan cat; Paisley, a two-year-old short-haired feline (who rules the house, Kilroy-Huculak says); and a pooch named Pepper, an 11-year-old Labrador beagle cross.
“[Charlie’s] is perfect for anyone who needs support. I smudge, pray and thank them every day,” she says.
The folks at Charlie’s believe that having a pet helps people’s mental and physical health, providing unconditional love. Many people have told volunteers that their pets have saved their lives.
Charlie’s does not have a mobile veterinary license, so the team can’t perform medical procedures, but volunteers can book discounted spay and neuter appointments at an animal hospital.
And sometimes a simple fix, such as a bit of creative pet grooming, is all that’s needed. “I started noticing pets were coming in with mats on their back, quite a thick knot of hair, and that can pull the skin causing abrasions and lesions,” says Waters. “So I got a hair trimmer and we can buzz cut them.”
Until the start of the pandemic, there had been a regular veterinarian on site to diagnose and recommend treatment, but that availability has been reduced to about once a month.
In the meantime, Charlie’s crew not only distributes food and grooms animals, but acts as triage nurses as well, checking on the pet and if needed, directing pet owners to the animal hospital at the Vancouver branch of the BC SPCA at 1205 E. 7th Ave. They also offer information about how to apply for affordable medical care for their animals.
Services that Charlie’s provides weekly include cat and dog nail trims, dog training tips and basic grooming. Items distributed weekly include wet and dry pet food, cat and dog treats, cat litter and boxes, toys, collars, harnesses and leashes, pet coats, beds and carriers.
Pets and their guardians must register in person (one family member per household), to ensure there’s enough pet food for all. Interested people can speak with a Charlie’s volunteer to learn how.
It’s not just chic chihuahuas like L.V. that come to Charlie’s. There are temperamental tabbies, too.
Megalove is an exacting male kitty cared for by Paul Shawdover, who is also a Megaphone vendor. Shawdover met Megalove two years ago while he was visiting northern St'át'imc Territory in Lillooet.
“This little cat started following me around,” recalls Shawdover. “They said I can have him on one condition: don’t sell him!”
The pair have become inseparable companions.
“He’s an attention hound and escape artist and wants his hugs and kisses at 4 a.m. every morning,” Shawdover says.
Dogs and cats are not the only animals to access this community initiative.
“We get a lot of rabbits and guinea pigs, too, which can be quite fun,” Waters says.
“There was a bearded dragon, once,” she recalls, “and people picking up baby pigeons in the park and raising them as pets.”
To learn more about Charlie’s and how you can access the services or help out, visit the BC SPCA’s website.
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