With a group of 7,000 dog lovers in his corner, a man living in Pippy Park lands an apartment

Before finding an apartment last week, Tremaine “Trey” Clarke and her dog, Buddy, were staying at Pippy Park Campground in St. John’s, NL. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

It took hundreds of messages from owners, an outpouring of support from a dog-loving community, and stays at the Gathering Place, a hotel, and several campsites.

But after searching since last December, Tremaine “Trey” Clarke and her loyal dog, Buddy, have finally landed a new apartment.

“God, I have my keys,” Clarke said. “Now I have some stability.”

Clarke said he was thrilled when he heard the news this week.

“I was jumping up and down – I felt like John Travolta, dancing all over the place,” Clarke said. “I’ve been waiting for this for so long.”

Since May, Clarke had been living in a tent at Pippy Park Campground in St. John’s. And he is not the only person in a precarious residential situation to have taken up residence in the park. CBC News is aware of three other people staying at the campground while looking for accommodation to rent or while waiting for a rental to become available.

A large black dog with a leash and a teal bandana lays on the ground at Pippy Park.
Clarke said many landlords in the St. John’s metro area turn away tenants with dogs. But for Clarke, her dog Buddy is a non-negotiable. “He’s my medicine,” Clarke said. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

But since camping at Pippy Park costs about as much as renting an apartment, the campground is an unlikely site for a future tent city. Clarke said her semi-serviced lot, which includes shower access and electricity, costs $995 a month.

And the main reason Clarke was able to pay those fees, meet Buddy’s needs, and ultimately find an apartment?

The collective kindness of approximately 7,000 dog lovers in the “Snowdogs of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada” Facebook group – especially the kindness of that group’s founder and moderator, Heather Gordon.

A 7-month search begins

“I’m still watching him because I keep calling Trey my adopted nephew,” Gordon said.

Clarke, in turn, calls Gordon her guardian angel.

The two met last fall, when the Snowdogs group started helping Clarke cover vet bills and medication for Buddy. Clarke said he recently suffered an injury from a car accident and started looking for apartments while at the Gathering Place shelter.

WATCH | Tremaine “Trey” Clarke describes what it was like to live in a tent and then move into an apartment:

He lived in a park. Community support put him in an apartment

Tremaine “Trey” Clarke describes how he went from a tent in Pippy Park in St. John’s to an apartment he calls his own.

But Clarke found life at the Gathering Place difficult, particularly due to alleged drug use by shelter guests.

“With everyone’s ups and downs, it was a little difficult,” Clarke said.

Paul Davis, the executive director of Gathering Place, said in an interview that the shelter provides a low-barrier service, which means people who actively use substances are welcome at the center.

“We ask people not to use in space, and when it’s found or detected, they’re asked to stop,” Davis said. “We ask them to leave, we advise them not to stay here to use and so on, but sometimes it happens and we recognize it.”

After an altercation at the center, Clarke said he and his ex-partner were not allowed to return to the meeting place for two and a half weeks. But by then they had had enough. In April, as their search for accommodation continued, Clarke and her ex-partner decided to pitch a tent in Quidi Vidi.

“This [was] so much safer. It’s better for our mental health and so on,” Clarke said.

That month, Gordon was shocked when she checked on Clarke. She had thought he was still at the meeting place. But the video Clarke sent to Gordon tells a different story.

“I was looking [at the video] and I noticed there was a thin blanket under Trey and a sleeping bag over him. And he had his coat next to him, and he had Buddy wrapped in the coat, and he was shaking and Buddy was shaking,” Gordon recalled.

At the time, Gordon said, she couldn’t understand the situation.

“It was snowing. And I was like, ‘There’s no way anyone has to live like this,'” Gordon said. “So I put it on the [Snowdogs] band. And I would say in a day and a half we had enough money to pay for a week at the Fairfield Inn on Kenmount Road.”

Changing fortunes

That first week at the hotel quickly turned into two, when a second Facebook group of dog lovers — this time, based in Nova Scotia — offered to pay a second week of bills. And throughout Clarke’s hotel stay, Gordon said Snowdog members kept dropping by with dog food, homemade meals and other necessities.

But behind the scenes, Gordon wondered what to do next.

A man smiles while holding a black dog in his arms.  A woman has her arm around Clarke.  They are outside near an apartment building in St. John's.
Heather Gordon, founder of the Snowdogs of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada Facebook group, met Clarke and Buddy near their new apartment. (Submitted by Heather Gordon)

“Obviously it was very expensive to keep him in the hotel,” she said. “And I was trying to figure out, like, where could we put this person so they’re safe and they’re okay?”

Then it hit her: Pippy Park. Again, the Snowdogs raised funds to cover Clarke’s expenses and dropped off essentials for Clarke – a tarp, a Coleman stove, a cooling pad for Buddy. Gordon kept the Snowdogs group updated on how Clarke and Buddy were doing. And all the while, Gordon and Clarke continued to send hundreds of messages to homeowners.

Like many people looking for accommodation in St. John’s these days, both Gordon and Clarke felt like they weren’t going anywhere.

“I’ve messaged about 500 or 600 people since December,” Clarke said. “And that [was] just ‘rented, rented, rented. No. No dogs allowed.’ … This [was] just crazy.”

But eventually, a glimmer of housing hope emerged – again, rising from the support space of the Snowdogs group. A woman who had been with the group for years told Gordon she had an apartment and offered to arrange a visit for Clarke.

Now, Clarke’s fortunes have finally changed. And, of course, Clarke is also thrilled.

“As I have said, [Gordon’s] like an angel. The people in the band are phenomenal too. I don’t know what I can do to repay her and people in return,” Clarke said.

“If it wasn’t for her, I don’t know where we would be.”

“There are so many Treys out there”

Doug Pawson, executive director of End Homelessness St. John’s, said it’s not unusual for residents of that province who rely on shelters to get out for the summer.

“We’re not dealing with encampments like you see in other cities like Halifax, Toronto or Edmonton,” he said.

But Pawson said the recent shortage of rental housing in the metro area, coupled with a marked increase in rental prices, has an additional impact on people who have a history of insecure housing.

“We still see people getting housed who are homeless and chronically homeless,” he said. “But it puts a lot of pressure on the system while the supply of housing is even more limited.”

Going forward, Pawson said he would like to see more targeted investments in affordable housing, as well as a housing-focused shelter system. This type of system, he said, would aim to help people find housing immediately, “so that people don’t have to spend months in a shelter”.

For his part, Clarke is full of gratitude for everyone who helped him and Buddy get a fresh start. And Gordon, who had never helped anyone experiencing homelessness before, said the past few months had been very rewarding.

But having messaged hundreds of landlords herself — and mastering today’s rental market — Gordon worries about where it’s all heading.

“What people realize now is that there are so many Treys out there…there are so many people who need help, you know?” said Gordon.

“It was an eye opener for sure.”

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