I’m Northern California born and raised, and after teaching for nearly 30 years in So. Cal, I knew I wanted to retire up here. I went to Chico State and still have many close friends and significant personal connections here. I officially moved back to town in 2006 but had to continue commuting to L. A. until just last December. I intended the Homeless Animal Outreach to be a retirement project, and I didn’t anticipate getting started with it as early as I did. However, last July someone wrote one of those toxic letters to the E-R arguing that homeless people shouldn’t be allowed to have animals and that they should be taken away from them. I had to respond to that, and so I decided to write a letter to the paper and explain what my goals were. I opened an email account and put it in the letter asking interested people to contact me.
I received many positive responses (and surprisingly no negative ones). As a result of the letter, I was invited to be part of the Task Force to End Homelessness that met three times last fall and has subsequently issued a document outlining a ten-year plan to end homelessness in Butte County. I was able to make sure that the needs of animal-owning homeless people were represented in the document and in the plans.
Most significantly, my E-R letter also caught the eye of Dr. Valerie Caruso, a local vet who contacted me and told me she had been holding free veterinary clinics at the Jesus Center for more than 4 years. She had one coming up in a few weeks which I attended, and it turned out that she was already doing exactly the kind of thing I was hoping to organize. Because she provides all the services and materials at her own cost, she is only able to hold clinics about 4 times a year. One of our goals as an organization is to enlist other veterinarians to hold similar clinics during the other months.
At the same time this was happening, Annie Cox moved back to Chico. She had lived here as a child and decided to relocate from Sacramento. Just as I had, she immediately saw the need to help the animals belonging to the many homeless people in town. She began doing much the same research that I had and making many of the same contacts I had already made. When she went to Butte Humane, they told her what I was doing and gave her my phone number. As they say: the rest is history. She and I met and decided to work together, believing that we could accomplish more together than we could separately. I introduced her to Valerie, and eventually the three of us decided to start a non-profit to provide care and assistance to the animals of the homeless in Chico. We filed our non-profit paperwork with the IRS in January 2014 and received our official notification of acceptance in April 2014.
In addition to helping Valerie with the two vet clinics at the Jesus Center in the fall of 2013, we also started reaching out to animal-owning homeless people in Chico to gauge their interest in what we wanted to do and to ask them what they needed most. It has been a busy and productive time – and educational not only for us, but hopefully some of the homeless people as well. The first dog we helped was an elderly black lab named “Tripp” (karma or what?!). One of the clients at the Jesus Center told us that the dog was crippled and was living with his person in an abandoned car at the back of a local business. We located the car and kept going back until both the dog and the person he belonged to were there. It turned out that Tripp had a torn ligament in one of his back legs, and when we took him to the vet she gave strict orders that he needed rest. His owner, Mike, only had a bike for transportation and was used to running the dog next to the bike when they would go anywhere. We convinced him to let us help Tripp and find him a place where he could essentially retire in dignity. It was not an easy process for any of us, and it stretched out for several weeks, but eventually we were able to convince Mike to let us take Tripp to the comfortable, happy home we had found for him.
We also fostered a dog for a man who had to serve a short sentence at the jail in Oroville. We met him at one of the fall vet clinics. “Biscuit” had an injured leg, and it was clear that if he was taken to the animal shelter he would probably be put down. We provided a safe, comfortable place for Biscuit to recuperate until his person was released from jail and they could be reunited.
One of the things that we learned, and which might surprise most of the general public, is that homeless people who want to enter a shelter or have to go to jail or the hospital will lose their pets because they are forced to relinquish them before receiving services. There are currently no shelters in Chico – and few in the U.S. as a whole – that allow animals. One exception is in the case of officially designated service dogs, but the process to have an animal tested and so designated is both costly and time consuming. In fact, one friend recently told me that it took almost six months and more than $600 to get their small dog designated as a service animal for her autistic son.
Because of the exclusion of animals from shelter life, one of the projects we are working on is to organize a foster network to provide assistance to people who want to enter one of the local shelters or rehab facilities but are reluctant to do so because they don’t want to lose their pets.
In addition to the dogs we personally fostered, we also spent a great deal of time doing outreach last winter during the big freeze. We were contacted by two wonderful women who volunteered to make warm dog coats for us, and we were able to distribute almost 50 of them during the worst of the bad weather. We also gave out blankets and socks and gloves that we bought. To do this, we literally drive around town, stopping at the places we know the homeless people gather, and when we see them with animals, we stop and ask if they need any help or would like a coat or some food for their dogs. When we let them know who we are and what we’re trying to do, with very few exceptions, they have been appreciative and friendly.
One fascinating encounter we had over a period of weeks last winter was with a woman named Bev. I had received some emails from concerned members of the community who had seen her pushing her cart around town with her two dogs, so we went out in search of her. We finally located her on one of those bone-chilling nights last November eating soup out of a cup she was given by some sympathetic people at a local sandwich shop. She looked to be anywhere from 25 to 40 years old. She was wearing a long, multicolored skirt, several sweaters, a big man’s coat and a wool cap, and her complexion had a ruddy windblown texture from constant exposure to the elements. Her bare hands were shaking as she spooned the soup into her mouth. A huge pile of blankets and clothing and bags and just stuff that she had collected filled a shopping cart to overflowing. One of her dogs, a huge silver husky named Leroy, was tied to the handle of the cart, and the other was actually in the cart under some blankets. Only his nose sometimes peeked out, and we could see his dull eyes looking warily at us. His name was Dakota, and he was a 17-year-old lab/wolf mix she said she got off the Lakota Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He was suffering from kidney failure and obviously in bad shape. The other dog was much younger and seemed very robust. He was a friendly and playful guy whose antics only made the other one seem more debilitated.
We had many encounters with Bev, trying each time to get her to let us take the sick dog to the vet, but she wouldn’t be parted with him. She said, “We’re a team. If you adopt one of us, you have to adopt all of us.” Calling herself a “free spirit,” she told us stories of wandering around the West coast: Tahoe, Monterey, Carmel, San Francisco, Washington, Oregon. She was very familiar with all the services – or the lack of them – for homeless people with animals and seemed surprised that Chico had so little to offer. She even told us that in Eugene, Oregon they have a lift truck that will pick up street people even if they have animals and take their carts and other belongings into shelters when the weather gets too bad. Some research I did later confirmed that she knew what she was talking about.
Eventually we lost track of Bev and assumed she had left town. To our surprise she called just after New Years to thank us for trying to help her. She was staying somewhere outside of Mt. Shasta and wanted to let us know that Dakota had died. She encouraged us to keep trying to help people and their animals. And that is our goal – bring a voice to the voiceless through compassion and care.