Pet owners living on the streets or in shelters say they are ‘fighting for two’

17 Sep, 2019
Bark Avenue Foundation

Los Angeles Daily News

When Julieanne Gerard first laid eyes on Cookie three years ago, the tabby belonged to someone else and was in the backseat of a car with a rope tied around her small neck.

The feline looked starved, weighing what seemed like one pound, even though she was about 3 years old, and her teeth were rotten. The sight horrified Gerard, who said her instinct was to immediately rescue the cat from her then owners, who she described as homeless and addicted to drugs.

Gerard scrounged in her purse and dug up all that she had to her name at the time, which was a $20 bill.

“I handed it over as fast as I could, and I grabbed her,” she said.

Gerard, who was homeless herself, said she was in no position to take care of a pet. The plan was to foster the cat until she could find a new owner.

“But by the time I got her healthy, I was attached to her,” she said.

The 55-year-old San Fernando Valley native said the feeling seemed to be mutual, because ever since she rescued her from the car near a Canoga Park 7-Eleven, Cookie has not wanted to leave her side.

“She just wants to be with me, and it’s amazing to me — that anybody would love me that much,” the former aerospace industry worker said.

That feeling helped Gerard to recover some of her own spark for life, and to avoid going down a darker path: “There was a time when I felt very forgotten by the world,” she said.

That feeling also gave Gerard a path toward connecting to other people, including her roommate, who also has a cat. With their felines in tow in baby carriages, the pair attended a pop-up veterinary clinic this month at the LA Family Housing campus, where they also picked up some much needed pet supplies, including a stack of Fancy Feast canned dinners.

Gerard, who has been homeless for about four years, is now living in bridge housing at the campus, as she awaits permanent housing.

LA Family Housing’s bridge housing provides bunk beds in dorms that can often shelter six or more people, and is one of the few that is willing and can accommodate their residents’ companion animals. But most other shelters in Los Angeles and throughout the state often do not have the means to do so, and usually need to turn away potential shelter residents who are not willing to abandon their pets in order to secure a bed to sleep in for themselves.

State Sen. Bob Hertzberg — arguing that a quarter of the homeless population have pets — recently authored and got passed a bill that secures $5 million to help shelters be more prepared for both homeless pets and their owners.

Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, said the funding will be given out as grants to shelters that want to expand their services and provide for more pets. He said that it is “horrible” that so many shelters have had to refuse space to homeless people who want to bring their animals with them.

The bill is reflective of tweaks in policy that have been made both at the legislative level or by organizations themselves to better cater to homeless individuals in ways that reflect the realities and intricacies of people’s lives. Some housing providers have put more consideration into creating or obtaining funding for rooms that can accommodate a couple, for example. Restrictions that lead to separating couples are often also deal-breakers for some who are homeless and offered shelter.

There has also been more of a focus in recent years by philanthropic groups to address the needs of homeless people and their companion animals, according to Christy Schilling, executive director of Bark Avenue.

The group focuses on rescuing animals and doing education around spaying and neutering. But about four years ago their founder started informally assisting homeless people who needed supplies and veterinary care for their pets, Schilling said.

It wasn’t until last year that a grant became available from PetSmart that gave them the ability to set up regular clinics, leading to the monthly one held at the LA Family Housing campus.

Schilling said they try to stretch their grant funding by receiving donations from businesses and corporations for the pet supplies, and using the money primarily on veterinarian costs. The goal was to serve 100 pets and their owners, but she said they may be able to help twice as many.

She said that many shelters often run into difficulties because they are shared spaces in which those who own pets may have to deal with those who do not feel comfortable around them. That means the grant funding could potentially pay for solutions to ease or prevent any conflicts in those environments, such as making sure flea medication is available regularly to pet owners and creating pet play areas.

“A lot of times, it’s just pure space,” Schilling said. “These are places that were built really just with people in mind, so they are in tight quarters, in shared quarters. There are some people who don’t like pets and are allergic. When you are trying to keep everyone’s health and welfare in mind there could be challenges.”

Nicolas Coronado went to the Bark Avenue pet clinic at the LA Family Housing campus Tuesday to pick up pet supplies for his dog, a 12-year-old Chihuahua named Peanut who has been going blind.

Due to a bed bug infestation in his room, his belongings recently got tossed away along with those of his roommates. Coronado said he lost important personal documents as well as Peanut’s leash and collar.

He will now need to spend the money he had hoped to spend on Peanut’s vet bills to replace his documents, and if he is unable to replace the leash, he feels he may have trouble being allowed to keep his dog with him in his dorm.

“They don’t want him roaming around,” he said. “But they’re getting to be frustrated and they want to kick me out. I don’t want to lose my spot. I’m fighting for two.”

The 55-year-old Coronado said that he first met Peanut when he went to pick him out of a breeder’s litter at LAX about 12 years ago. The nervous dog immediately became calm when he went to pet him on his head. At the time Coronado was living with his partner in an apartment near the Children’s Hospital in Hollywood.

About three years ago, Coronado’s partner died of a “massive heart attack.” He was evicted from the apartment because his name was not on the lease, and he has been homeless ever since. Peanut has been one of his few constants.

“Sounds crazy, but this one (Peanut) is my world,” Coronado said. “You know, he means everything to me.”

After losing his partner of 14 years, Peanut “has been pretty much my comfort, because he is part of us,” he said.

Coronado first stayed at Union Rescue Mission in Skid Row, but he said he believes he was kicked out because of Peanut, even though he said he had the paperwork to show the dog is an emotional support animal. Coronado is now staying at the LA Family Housing bridge shelter on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood.

On Tuesday, he said he was worried about Peanut getting hit by a car. He was going to ask the Bark Avenue volunteers if there was a leash and collar set with reflectors.

“I want people to be able to see him,” he said. “Even though he is with me all of the time, I want him to stand out.”