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WorldWise: Companions for Life

Wed, Feb 5, 2014

For homeless people, pets can be their only companions in the world. They provide a source of comfort, community and often a reason to live. In this two-part special, Aaron Burkhalter of Real Change documents how homeless people care for their pets, often with more compassion than people with homes. In his first article, Burkhalter tells the story of Jennifer McSherry, a street paper vendor and homeless pet owner from Seattle, who cares for a cat. The second article reports on a volunteer-run veterinary clinic in Seattle that provides homeless and low-income people free medication, food and low-priced treatments for their animals.

In the shelter of animals

Everywhere she goes, Jennifer McSherry carries a beige pet carrier.

Inside, McSherry’s tuxedo cat, Bella, goes along for the ride.

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Rob Rabideau, 80, of Rainier Beach, holds his new kitten, Cuddles, outside the Doney Memorial Animal Clinic at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission in October. The Clinic provides veterinary care and medication for a flat $5 fee to about 80 of our four-legged friends every month. Photo: Wes Sauer

McSherry, 48, and her fiancé, Derek Hutchinson, 40, were forced to leave their Kent apartment in the spring, when the rent went up $50. Bringing Bella with them, they slept in the alley behind Queen Anne Liquor and Wine, under the Ballard Bridge and, most recently, in the Roy Street Shelter in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood.
Outreach workers met McSherry and Hutchinson under the Ballard Bridge and offered them space at the shelter.

The couple agreed, under one condition: “If you take one of us, you’ve got to take us all,” McSherry said. “And that includes Bella.”

On a recent Tuesday morning, McSherry sold copies of Real Change at Northwest Market Street and 22nd Avenue Northwest in Ballard while Bella, secure in her harness, nuzzled into a pile of blue blankets.

Some customers petted Bella, but McSherry said many passersby criticized her for keeping the cat while being homeless.

Once, a woman offered to adopt Bella from McSherry and bring her indoors.

McSherry refused the woman’s offer of money. She couldn’t put a price on her cat.
“She’s our baby,” McSherry said. “She means everything to us.”

McSherry said she puts Bella before everything else.

In return, she gets unconditional love and inspiration.

“She’s our reason for getting up in the morning and selling the papers,” she said.

Unique relationships

Leslie Irvine, a University of Colorado sociology professor and author of My Dog Always Eats First: Homeless People and Their Animals, said animals provide a unique relationship for homeless people, who are often ignored by society.

“To feel loved and needed by another being just the way you are really goes a long way when you’re in a situation when society has completely devalued you,” Irvine said.

When she started her research, Irvine assumed that the animals went hungry, but found that homeless people didn’t need the help she offered.

“They had more food than they could carry,” Irvine said. “I thought I was going to be this big hero and give out this pet food, but they already had plenty.”

She discovered that in many cases, homeless people are more attentive to their pets.
“Having a home doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good animal caretaker,” Irvine said.

Housed dogs often sit for hours at home by themselves. Homeless people have their pets with them all day.

“They get 24-7 attention, exercise and fresh air,” Irvine said.

Visible animals

Kara Main-Hester, spokesperson for The Seattle Animal Shelter, said the organization often gets calls from people worried by the sight of an animal with a homeless person. The Seattle Animal Shelter sends officers to check on every call, she said, but often finds the animals are as well-cared for as those that live in homes.
It’s just that they’re out in the open.

“When individuals are homeless, they are much more visible with their animals,” she said. “A dog in a backyard with a fence is harder to see.”

McSherry said she and Hutchinson always have bags of cat food nearby, and keep Bella’s carrier lined with blankets to keep her warm. Friends and Real Change customers help them provide for her.

“She constantly has a bowl of food,” she said.

McSherry has been homeless before, and said she spent most of her time sitting in a library. But this time, with Bella, she’s motivated to sell papers and find housing.

“She gives us a reason to keep going and trying,” McSherry said. “She’s the reason that we bother anymore, that we stay away from drugs. She’s the reason we stay sober.”

Lakesha Johnson, 37, said she had the same experience when she was homeless with Roxy, a Jack Russell Terrier.

Johnson volunteers at the Doney Memorial Pet Clinic, a veterinary clinic at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission for homeless and low-income people.

She was homeless in 2008 and trying to kick a heroin habit.

She credits Roxy for helping her get sober.

“When homeless people get pets, it shows them they really got something to live for,” Johnson said.

Roxy, she said, could tell when she was on drugs.

“They know the difference,” Johnson said, “because they know the real you.”

Pet project

Liz Foxx waited outside Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission for more than four hours with her two-month-old cockapoodle, Precious, wrapped up in a powder-blue fleece blanket.

Precious, a small ball of fuzz with curly black hair, had puffy eyes and a sore on her ear. Foxx, who lives in subsidized housing at the Frye Hotel, couldn’t afford to take Precious to a vet, so she arrived at the Union Gospel Mission for its twice-monthly clinic, which provides free examinations and donated medicine. The clinic also offers flea treatments for $5.

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In the basement of Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission in Pioneer Square, the Doney Memorial Animal Clinic provides free veterinary care to about 80 animals every month, including Genneva Jones’ Chihuahua, Joy, shown here. Photo: Wes Sauer

“I’m glad they have places like this to get your animals looked at,” she said.

Named for Bud Doney, a veterinarian who provided free exams for the pets of low-income people at Pike Place Market in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Doney Memorial Pet Clinic is funded by donations and run by volunteers.

Foxx cradled Precious in her jacket as she walked down a set of black stairs into a gray-tiled room in the Union Gospel Mission’s basement in Pioneer Square. The space had been converted into a makeshift veterinary office by volunteers.

Four vets with plastic boxes and chests filled with supplies and medicine stood side-by-side at four metal examining tables.

Foxx signed in at a table where volunteers keep records on 3-by-4-inch file cards of every animal. Precious was a new patient, so they filled out her information on a single card.

Some long-term clients have hand-written medical histories on stapled stacks of worn and bent cards, a sign of the clinic’s long history.

Carol Dougherty, who helps manage the program, said it can’t meet everyone’s needs.

“We often run out of cat food,” she said. “It’s a fact of life.”

An unknown donor often comes through in a pinch. One woman shows up every couple of weeks with Ziploc bags filled with kitty litter. She never gives her name, Dougherty said.

“I call her the cat litter angel,” she said.

The Doney Clinic gets little in the way of monetary donations. According to IRS records, the group collects less than $50,000 each year.

Most of the funding pays for medication, said Louise Garbe, the organization’s secretary. The Doney Clinic has no paid staff.

But the group manages to do a lot. In two hours, doctors and volunteers can help more than 50 animals.

People start showing up with their pets before 9 a.m. on clinic days; the clinic doesn’t start until 3 p.m. Some of those waiting are homeless; others live in low-income housing.

Don Rolf, a volunteer who travels 73 miles from Centralia for the clinic, is on his feet the entire time.

As Dr. Darrell Kraft examined Precious, Rolf rifled through plastic boxes and chests of vaccines, antibiotics and ointments.

Precious had a low-grade infection in her eyelids. She’d need an amoxicillin ointment and an oral antibiotic. Rolf quickly popped up with jars and bottles in hand.

“I’m pretty much at people’s beck and call,” Rolf told Real Change over the phone. He was too busy to talk during clinic hours.

The program is a lifesaver, said Christina D., 29, who asked that her last name be withheld. She lost her Skyway apartment about 11 miles from downtown in a fire, but her dog, Strega, and two kittens made it out.

The Doney Clinic helped replace everything her pets needed: leashes, pet beds and food.

“Everything else is just stuff,” she said.

For more information or to donate, visit doneyclinic.org.

Aaron Burkhalter
Real Change – USA

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