Call of the Wild

root - Posted on 04 August 2004

Many homeless youths find strength, and housing limitations, in the animals at their sides

by Joshua Cinelli/Street Roots

Sheila had only been in town for a few days, having hitchhiked from Michigan with her human companion Brent. Even though Sheila was a long way from home, she looked very much at peace on a sunny day on the park mall lawn climbing over a group of young people collapsed in one heap.

Sheila is a young red heeler who nibbles on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while her companion talks about her.

"She is a pure bred — loyal and smart. We got picked up mostly because of her," says
Brent, who looks road weary but smiled as he glanced at his pup.

"We feed her before we feed ourselves," he said. "Even though she is small in stature, she is good protection and has an ability to sense danger."

All of which make Sheila a valuable companion on the streets of Portland where many youths arrive still clinging to the best friend from home, a dog or a cat, or maybe a stray that has tagged along. Homeless shelters in Portland don’t accept pets, and most owners aren’t willing to let their pets loose, or worse, for a night on a shelter bunk. Even if a shelter did allow pets, “It would have to be a nice one if I was going to let my dog stay there,” said one of Sheila’s companions. “Not like the pounds with the cages.”

Web has lived on the street for 10 years. He leans up against the side of a building while his two dogs, Ghengis Khan and Generation 13, play with a ball. “It’s hard out here with dogs. It’s a lot of responsibility. You can’t take the max or the bus. You can’t do a lot of things. But they are worth it.”

Web pats one dog on the back and said his four-legged friend has traveled 2,600 miles by way of hitchhiking. “There should be a program for alcohol and drug rehab where you can have animals.”

Right now there is hardly anywhere to bring an animal at night.
“There is no safe place to keep your pet,” a young man nicknamed Groundscore said. “You’d rather sleep under a bridge than give up your dog to go inside.”

At the Streetlight youth shelter, workers are addressing the needs brought up by youth who said the lack of shelter space for homeless youths with companion animals is a barrier in getting them off the street.

“Presently, we have two kennels and are working to make agreements with the youth to walk their dogs at night and first thing in the morning while making sure that the animals have proper vaccinations and licensing,” said Kevin Donegan, director of community programs at Janus Youth. “Otherwise, it is a danger to other pets and staff.”

Jess Fraver, a veterinary assistant at Lombard Animal hospital explained the necessity for the recommended immunizations for puppies and the financial cost involved with keeping up with shots and check ups.,

“If a shelter were to house animals there would be a need for a kennel cough vaccine because the kennel cough is a respiratory ailment quick to spread and with serious implications,” Fraver said.

There are currently free vet clinics offered periodically at Outside In and Dignity Village provided by volunteer veterinarians working with Progressive Animal Welfare Society, or PAWS. PAWS is taking a leadership role in providing direct care of homeless companion animals. Dignity Village currently has 30 cats and 14 dogs living out at Sunderland Yard and is the one place where folks who are homeless can live with their animals off the streets.
Matt Roselle of In Defense of Animals believes that companion animals are truly part of the family.

“If someone’s life situation changes and they end up without a place to live, the companion animal should be part of the equation,” Roselle said. “They should have shelters where families and individuals can have animals until they get back on their feet.”
There is a fine line between those who had companions when they were housed and those who take on animals while they are living on the street, Roselle said.

“It is not a responsible move for a homeless person that doesn’t have an animal to choose to take on an animal when they are in that situation. It is a big responsibility and should be taken seriously,” Roselle said.

It raises the issue that a large number of the housed population feel it is cruel for people who are on the street to have animals. Animal cruelty can be determined, according to PAWS, by observing characteristics of their environment, including access to food, water and shelter.

For a lot of young people without housing, an animal is a source for unconditional love and a constant companion. Snaggle Tooth, a trained chef, said his pit bull Chevy was the reason he gave up drugs.

“I just wanted to spend more time with her and be better to her.” Chevy, an affectionate smoocher, is dressed in a maroon sweatshirt and some beads hang around her neck. “I don’t know what I’d do without her.” Snag says.

Snag’s and Chevy’s relationship is not uncommon for people who are homeless and animal companions. Dogs, after 10,000 years of domestication, now depend on humans to comprise their pack. A sufficient amount of contact with the human pack provides the dog with the necessary security and order. This devotion becomes a two way street. Even during the coldest days and most adverse conditions of outside living, outreach workers have found a barrier to bringing people off the street into shelter because they will not abandon their companion.

When a person does give up an animal, if it is not taken by another person, than the animal goes to the animal shelter where many animals are euthanised after being labeled “unadoptable.” Mountain, a young woman now in housing, said it was extremely difficult to find an apartment that would let her keep her dog. Despite the limitations placed on individuals living on the street with companion animals, there are many positives for these young people to have an animal that provides love, protection and security. However, there are currently no plans to begin accepting pets into public shelters, according to Heather Lyons of the Bureau of Housing and Community Development.

“There has been discussion in the past on what to do with homeless people that have animals, especially youth, but there has not been a broad-based effort or an allocation of funds as of yet to change the access available.”

City's new alcove policy stirs up homeless displacement issues

By Joanne Zuhl/Street Roots

The city’s decision to waive fees on erecting alcove gates for downtown business owners is expected to further displace the city’s homeless population into outlying neighborhoods.
That might not have been the intent behind the 18-month pilot program, but it is a consequence homeless advocates hope the city is prepared to deal with.

"In these alcoves, police get a number of calls for services regarding the removal of criminal activities," Myers told the Council as photos of gratified alleyways, discarded beer and wine bottles, used syringes and feces flashed on the large screen above the Council.

The pilot project, proposed by downtown’s Senior Neighborhood Officer Jeff Myers, waives the high fees associated with permitting gates in downtown alcoves. The intention is to give business owners greater freedom to erect gates to prevent vandalism, drug use and other misuse of the alcoves along the city’s streets and alleys. The policy was supported by the city’s police and fire bureaus, city attorneys’ office, department of transportation, and other Portland departments, and received a unanimous vote of support from the City Council on March 17.

While the benefits to the pilot program were not questioned, Marc Jolin, an attorney with the Homeless Law Program of the Oregon Law Center raised the consequences.

"There will be a secondary effect on homeless people who use alcoves as a shelter of last resort," Jolin said to the Council.

"Alcoves are not part of our homeless system," said Commissioner Jim Francesconi said,
Perhaps not officially, but they are used as shelter for the homeless, which number far exceeds the amount of shelter beds provided in Portland.

Jolin said the impact on the homeless population must be addressed and incorporated into the process for developing and monitoring the pilot program. Many groups have already been addressing the homeless population to find new solutions, including the city's Blue Ribbon Commission on Homelessness, the Southeast Uplift Homeless Working Group, and crossroads. "The alcove abatement should be rolled into that process." Jolin said.

Other speakers questioned how the review process, which is paid for by the fees, will be conducted without the cut in funding. The impact on the displacement of the homeless into neighboring residential and business communities was also raised as a concern.

"It doesn’t go away," said one resident and board member of the Hosford-Abernathy Neighborhood Association. "It just changes the places. This may be ultimately part of the answer, but I think we need to involve everyone."

Commissioner Erik Sten said it was unfortunate that the homeless advocates were not involved in the process leading up to the abatement policy, but he voted in favor of the new policy saying there was still room for involvement as this program and others move forward.

All the members of the Council commented on the need to address the displacement issue, but that the concerns for criminal activity and the protection of property values were equally important for the downtown business owners.

Responding to the questions of displacement, Myers said the alcove project is only one of eight pilot projects the police and the city are working on to address the growing homeless population in Portland.


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