Holes in the Safety Net: An Unsheltered Pets and People Story

31 Jul, 2019
Bark Avenue Foundation

Holes in the Safety Net: An Unsheltered Pets and People Story

Barbara, a kind woman in her late sixties kissed her dapple long haired dachshund on the head. Attie, short for “Miss Attitude,” gave her a lick back, and Barbara smiled.

“How long have you been homeless?” I asked her.

She had just told me she had come from Washington State back in November and previous to that had been on the East Coast in various locations.

“Oh, well, I guess I’ve always been a nomad, but most of the time,” she shrugged, “I’ve been homeless.”

She is currently living in her Dodge Caravan with Attie, waiting to get approved for housing. Being homeless isn’t something new for her. For over four decades she has been on and off the streets, in and out of public housing all across the country.

“You see back when I turned 18, that was it: you were out of foster care. It didn’t matter that I was still in high school. I turned 18, and poof! I was out on my own. I did eventually go back and get my diploma, but that paper is long gone now.”

Without a degree, growing up in foster care, and homeless while still in high school, she was starting adulthood without anything but her independent nature in her favor.

“I don’t think I’m the type who can live with anyone,” she said scrunching up her face as if the very idea of shared living quarters gave her a bad taste in her mouth.

Once you get used to doing everything on your own alone, it’s hard to change your ways. Especially after forty years. 

But then there’s Attie. While Barbara couldn’t live with another human, she couldn’t imagine being without her dog.

“She keeps me alive,” she said. 

This wasn’t just a platitude. “I have sleep apnea, and I’ll wake up with her right here on my neck.” She positions her hand on the side of her neck, and I imagine the silky long dog with her thin muzzle under her ear, her body resting on her right shoulder. “She senses when I stop breathing and she wakes me up, licks my face. She keeps me alive.”

Barbara suffers from sciatica and other health ailments that make holding down a job impossible. She carries Attie a lot, but sometimes her pain is so much, she has a hard time despite Attie’s slight body frame. “I’d love to get one of those strollers I see some folks with,” she said wistfully.

She happened to be just in luck. The Pasadena Humane Society had given Bark Avenue Foundation three strollers which had been donated to them without wheels. Through a long and arduous process, Christy Schilling, director of BAF, was able to purchase the wheels and they were available to anyone with a need.

Barbara picked out the red one; she felt it went well with Attie’s coloring. Attie was having quite a fine day. She had gotten a new pink and white harness since she hated her collar and a new pink name tag. That’s the thing about independent women: they ask the least for themselves, but when it comes to the animal they love, they would give them the world if they could.

When I asked if she needed any dog food, she said Attie was pretty particular. “I can get food for her,” she said. “And honestly, I usually cook for her,” she whispered to me. 

Attie is probably having more nutritionally-sound and diverse meals cooked on a hotplate out of the back of a van than I was making for myself in my own kitchen. 

Barbara made me realize how many holes there are in what should be the safety net of our government’s public assistance programs. Although health care is available, it is minimal and involved reams of paperwork. Government food assistance programs provide the staples, but not all necessities like toilet paper and laundry detergent. There isn’t enough public housing—and housing for those with pets is even more scarce.

When I read that the United States is the “most generous” nation, meaning it donates the most to nonprofits per capita, I realize it’s because we have to. The government programs aren’t enough, but we inherently know we must care for everyone in the community. We’re all connected. The health of a community is based on the health of each individual. If we let the individuals down, our community as a whole falters.

So to make up for that, we create, administer, donate to, and volunteer for the numerous non-profits around the country who do their best to plug up the holes in the welfare safety net. They provide food pantries, emergency shelters, job-seeking assistance, and guidance navigating the government policies to receive community-based assistance. Bark Avenue Foundation provides a unique service: we provide assistance directly to the pets of unsheltered people that are working with a homeless service agency. 

While I sat talking with Barbara, dozens of pets had wellness checks with a veterinarian, received flea and tick prevention medications, nail trims, were dewormed and their guardians received information and peace of mind, knowing their concerns for their pets had been addressed.

I heard it from others that day, not just Barbara: their pets were their whole life. They were their constant companions, their best friends, their most loyal confidantes. These furry friends did not judge them for not having a permanent home or full time job. These animals didn’t care if they were in a house, an apartment, or a tent on the sidewalk; they were home every second of every day—with their person.

I looked around the room at the people holding their pups and showing them donated toys, asking their dog directly “How about this one? Do you want a ball? Or a tug toy?” while others picked up cans of cat food for their feline friend (one even brought her cat with her in a stroller), or chse a bed and blanket for their canine companion, explaining, “He only has a crate. He will love this!” I realized that although Bark Avenue Foundation is about helping pets, it’s really helping people. For this moment, right here, right now, every individual was able to care for their most precious loved one.

The joy on Barbara’s face, seeing Attie’s new pink harness on her was priceless. The joy a man expressed going through the toy bin and finding just the right toy for his dog (who approved by nosing it) made me smile. Pet tags were being made at a table in the back of the room, and while they waited for the machine to etch each pet’s name and number, the guardians told stories of their companions, proud of each one, grateful to have them in their lives. 

So often being homeless, you feel invisible, like a ghost in the system. But here, now, each person was solid and real and so were their pets. Their animals brought them into the light, made them feel whole. While some people may judge that homeless people shouldn’t have pets, it is the pets that give them the greatest drive to care for themselves, to find a path outward and upward. It’s fitting then, that BAF’s program Unsheltered Pets and People’s acronym is UPP. Because each pet lifts the spirits and lives of their person, and for each person who gets assistance through UPP, they take one more step upward, never judged for their current position, but merely aided on their journey.

UPP provides food, litter, veterinary care, pet beds and blankets, toys, and any donated luxuries for the unsheltered pets and their people at LA Family Housing the fourth Monday of every month. If you’re interested in donating or volunteering, please contact Christy at christy@barkavenuefoundation.org. Or if you’re someone in need, please come by. We’d love to meet you and your loyal companion, and do all we can for you and them.

Stephanie Wescott is a freelance writer whose mission is to save animals’ lives through story. Although she hails from New England and resides in Southern California, you’ll mostly likely find her somewhere in between on the open road with her canine companion Tucker, searching for trails to hike and stories to tell. You can follow their tracks and read their tales at www.alltuckeredout.org.