After years of volunteering with the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in Stouffville, Ont., Anya Bhopa noticed a heartbreaking reality.
Many of the animals landing in their care came from those who didn't have the means to support them, the 16-year-old realized.
"If the animal felt ill, they couldn't afford to give them the proper treatment, or they fell ill because of their lack of vaccinations [or] malnutrition," Bhopa told CBC Toronto.
"We saw many infected wounds from living on the streets," she said.
With two dogs of her own, Teddy and Nala, Bhopa says she could relate to the pain of owners who had to give their pets away.
"I notice how important my animals are in my life and how they impact my mental well-being," she said.
"Putting myself in the shoes of those that... don't have the means to support them and have to make the heartbreaking decision to feed themselves one day or feed their pet is unimaginable."
So, together with her 22-year-old sister, Shania, Bhopa decided to take action. In May of this year, the two sisters launched the Canadian Courage Project, a non-profit organization aimed at keeping young people and their pets together.
As young people themselves, the pair decided they would target their efforts to youth experiencing homelessness. In Toronto alone, an average of 1,197 children under the age of 18 were unhoused on any given night this year, according to the city.
Neither the City of Toronto, the Ontario SPCA or the Toronto Humane Society track homeless pets, although one anthrozoology expert estimates one in four people experiencing homelessness owns animals, mostly dogs.
"We realize that there's more hidden homelessness than we imagined — and within our own neighbourhoods," Shania said.
Since May, the pair has run several successful fundraisers to help buy items for care kits, including pet food, hygiene products and blankets, for shelters across the province. A dedicated fund for animal vaccinations is also in the works.
"All of our donations, we see it firsthand with the individuals, just with a smile on their face … that their voice is being heard and that's one of our biggest commitments," Shania said.
'Never let them down'
YouthLink, a youth social services organization in Scarborough, received some of the first donations from the Canadian Courage Project.
Last year, YouthLink opened a 51-bed, pet-friendly shelter, where young people can seek help for both themselves and their animals. The shelter receives regular support from veterinarians and has a kennel on site.
"When a homeless youth has a dog, that is the only being on this planet that has never let them down, that has never failed them. It's their best friend as well as their security," said Evan Back, director of fund development and brand building at YouthLink.
"If a homeless youth cannot come in to go to the doctor or to go eat something without their pet, then they're not coming in. So they fall through the cracks quite often."
The organization lost some large financial donations this year due to the pandemic, Back said, which made the contributions from the Canadian Courage Project all the more important.
"They raised money... for COVID products and dog food, and also [gave] their time," Back said.
"It's remarkable to have somebody 16 and 22 — so young — to be so aware."
On top of launching a charity amid a pandemic, they both go to school. Bhopa is in Grade 11 at Stouffville District Secondary School and Shania is studying global health at McMaster University.
Still, their latest virtual campaign brought in more than $1,000.
Through the holidays, they're also selling locally made sweaters, Shania said, with 100 per cent of the proceeds going to unhoused youth across Ontario.
"We've been really lucky to be supported by our community thus far," Shania said.
In future, the sisters hope to expand the Canadian Courage Project to meet more needs of youths experiencing homelessness. They're also paying it forward, supporting local businesses in their community when purchasing new items for their kits, such as masks and socks.
"We're trying to inspire other youth to make change as well ... We all need to come together to tackle the world's most pressing issues and we start that locally."