Home is Where the Heart is: Animals Find Compassion on the Streets

 

Estimates show that 10-15% of America's homeless have a dog or cat
Estimates show that 10-15% of America’s homeless have a dog or cat

On any given night in New York City, untold numbers of homeless people walk the streets with animal companions by their side. As the weather cools, this companionship becomes essential to keeping them warm through the cold nights. The often lonely existence of life on the streets becomes less lonely with the love and affection of a pet.

According to Mary Brosnahan,  at the Coalition for the Homeless, there are two main ways by which homeless people come into possession of pets.  When a person loses a home and cannot bear to part with a pet that has become an integral part of her life, oftentimes she will take the pet with her.  Other homeless people adopt strays.  When this occurs, pets that would otherwise be left to fend for themselves, find a loyal friend who tends to their needs.

Many homeless people are willing to make great sacrifices to make sure that their pets are looked after, sometimes forsaking opportunities for shelter in order to stay with their animal friends.  “If you go into shelters, the pet’s gone,” explains Dan Tietz, Deputy Director for Operations and Development for the Coalition for the Homeless.  “It’s not an option.”

One May evening, Theodore rummages through trash left at Seventh Avenue and 34th Street while his three German Shorthaired Pointers dine in style on an assortment of fresh meats.  While Theodore walks the streets in threadbare clothes with rough, calloused hands, the three liver and white speckled dogs are expertly groomed and in top physical shape.  From his childhood in Greece, Theodore always lived around dogs. “You need two things to protect the livestock,” Theodore explains with a laugh, “a good gun, and a good dog.” After immigrating to Queens, Theodore cultivated his passion for dogs by breeding the pointers.  Theodore tells of when his doctor broke the bad news of his heart condition to him. “He told me I could no longer work because of my heart.”  Without work, Theodore eventually found himself on the streets with his dogs.

Theodore acts as a doting parent to his dogs, and he uses his meager resources to give them better care than he can afford for himself.  “Checkups every year,” explains Theodore, “shots every three years.”  With Amy, Emily, and Nick, the entourage attracts attention not only from pedestrians, but also from the police, and Theodore states that he needs to be ready to comply with their demands at a moment’s notice.  Nearby, three cops who had spoken earlier with Theodore become six, and their concern over the dogs is obvious.

For today, as he has for several years, Theodore

manages to avoid separation from Theodore his canine friend.  Not everyone is so lucky.  Mr. Taylor remembers, “A (homeless) woman called me once complaining that the police wanted to throw her pet into the garbage truck” in February of this year.  Often in winter, the police make sweeps to bring the homeless into shelters, and people are forced to separate from their pets.  Ann Duggan, the Director of Public Education for the Coalition for the Homeless, explains, “the animal is out wandering on their own, or they may be sent to an animal shelter, and it’s very difficult (for a homeless person) to get the animal back.”

While no one argues that the street isn’t an ideal place for a person or an animal to live, pets of the homeless find themselves lavished with no less love and affection than any Park Avenue pooch. Pets fill a great need in the lives of the homeless and make their lives more tolerable.  According to Mr. Tietz, “to the degree that street homeless are stepped over and invisible…it’s that much more important.  On your worst day, your dog’s still glad to see you.”  Amidst the lonely conditions that come with life on the street, the companionship of a pet can make a world of difference.  If home is where the heart is, then homeless people will always find a home in the love that they share with their animal companions.

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