Homeless, But Not Hungry

posted February 7th, 2016 by
  • Share
What's in Your Dog Shampoo

Homeless, But Not Hungry

By Nancy Gallimore, CPDT-KA

 

She was waiting patiently, lying on the grass in a patch of early morning sun. Her head resting on her front paws, she kept her brown eyes focused on the sidewalk where a steady stream of people were coming and going from a nearby church. She didn’t move a muscle; she wasn’t pulling against her leash; she wasn’t barking or whining.

I later found out that her name is Bella. She is 8 months old. She is the pride and joy of her owner, a slender, quiet young man named Stacy.

Stacy, who was initially too shy to even look at me, lit up when I complimented Bella’s sweet temperament and shiny coat. As the big puppy climbed into my lap and lavished my face with kisses, Stacy told me that a friend had given Bella to him a few months earlier. She had been a stray puppy. Now she was his best friend.

It’s a nearly perfect “boy and his dog” story except for one small issue; Stacy and Bella are homeless. I met Stacy and Bella during breakfast at Tulsa’s Iron Gate at Trinity Episcopal Church. Iron Gate is a non-profit organization housed in the basement of Trinity. Iron Gate’s mission is to provide food in a friendly environment every day for the hungry and homeless of Tulsa, regardless of race, color, creed or religious affiliation. Hundreds of people—old, young, and entire families—come to the organization’s soup kitchen and food pantry each week.

This story is not unique—many members of Tulsa’s homeless population have pets. According to Iron Gate Executive Director Connie Cronley, it is not unusual to see a number of dogs tethered outside the soup kitchen as their owners go in for a bite to eat. While you may think that life on the streets is not a good life for a pet, a little time around some of these dogs and their owners could easily change your mind.

Bella, for example, was a sweet, healthy, friendly dog. She has obviously received good care in her young life. She was leashed to a shopping cart that clearly held all of her owner’s possessions. Among those things was a bowl, a bottle of water, a dog bed, and a gallon zip-lock bag full of dog food. Bella’s owner is dedicated to taking care of his dog.

I asked Stacy if it was hard to find a place to sleep with a dog in tow. He just shrugged and said, “Not really. We figure it out.” I asked him if it was hard to care for Bella. Again, with a slight smile on his face, he said he got food for her from the dog catchers and then he glanced across the parking lot at a truck parked on the corner.

The “dog catchers” on duty were Tulsa Animal Welfare (TAW) Animal Control Officers Jeff Brown and Pete Theriot. Together with Field Services Supervisor Susan Stoker, they formed a support group known formally as Feeding the Pets of Tulsa’s Homeless (FPTH).

FPTH was officially founded in January of 2014 when Stoker received a large donation of dog food and asked Brown what he thought they should do with it. The TAW shelter is a division of the City of Tulsa and does not use food donations for city shelter dogs. Brown, however, had an idea.

In the past, Brown and other TAW employees had distributed donated pet food to Tulsa’s homeless population at various camp sites around the city. Brown suggested that this donated food could be used for the same purpose, and Stoker quickly agreed to the idea. With that first supply of donated food, FPTH was born.

“Initially, we would pull up to a camp or to an area where homeless people congregated, and they would all scatter,” Brown said. “They would take one look at our TAW trucks and assume we were there to take their animals away.” Brown said it took time and a lot of reassurance through word of mouth to assure the homeless citizens the animal control officers were not there to separate people from their pets, but instead to help provide for the animals.

Once trust was gained, and the program began to evolve, Brown found that rather than trying to take the food to various sites, it was more efficient to have specific distribution points. Now Tulsa’s homeless citizens can count on seeing the friendly faces of these dedicated TAW employees every Wednesday morning at Iron Gate, and also on Thursday evenings at Night Light Tulsa, a downtown community outreach program for homeless and low-income individuals and families. There are no  strings attached, no questions asked. If someone says they need pet food, they receive pet food.

“Between the two locations, we hand out nearly 4,000 pounds of dog food and about 1,200 pounds of cat food a month,” Brown said. The food is packaged into gallon zip-lock bags that are easy for the pet owners to carry in backpacks. Because the food is distributed weekly without fail, people can take just what they need for one week and don’t have to try to carry heavy bags.

Visits to both distribution sites made it clear the commitment of the people behind FPTH’s mission runs deeper than just the distribution of bags of pet food. Brown, Theriot and Stoker have forged relationships with many of their regulars.

“Hey, it’s the Dancing Man,” Brown exclaimed in the early morning chill at Iron Gate. The approaching man grinned as he recognized his nickname. Brown and the Dancing Man shook hands and clapped each other on the back. Theriot was already reaching into the truck to get the food he knew their visitor needed for his pets. This welcoming scene played out over and over as people steadily approached the truck to get their weekly ration of pet food.

“We like to interact with all of our friends in the homeless community,” explained Brown. “It’s our way of having a little fun and showing them that we are here to help. There’s too much bad in the world today. If we can put a smile on someone’s face or make someone’s day better by helping them care for their pets, we will.”

At both events, Brown, Theriot, Stoker and a few volunteers helping hand out the food and supplies seemed to be at a family reunion instead of at an outreach for homeless and low-income Tulsans. Heartfelt greetings were exchanged. Friendly dogs were admired and petted.

One man asked if there was anything for a young dog that was a powerful chewer. Brown immediately went to the front of his truck and produced a sturdy bone for   the man’s dog. “We’ve handed out leashes, dog coats, toys, food and anything we think might be helpful,” Brown said. During one two-hour event at Night Light Tulsa,  in addition to handing out food,        the TAW employees also had two big boxes of donated fleece blankets to distribute to the line of people waiting to stock up on pet food.

“The FPTH program relies 100 percent on donations from individuals, veterinarians and pet supply stores,” Brown said. “Without donations, we couldn’t keep this program going. Thanks to area veterinarians, we have also been able to hold clinics to provide vaccinations and wellness exams for these pets and hope to have more in the future.” 

The value of FPTH’s efforts needs no explanation. All you have to do is head downtown to see some of the dogs firsthand. Every dog I met was friendly, appeared healthy and in good condition.

When asked if they had ever taken in any animals from the homeless, Brown was quick to respond. “We have never had to take even one animal because of neglect or cruelty,” he said. “The homeless will take care of their pets before they take care of themselves. These animals are their life.”

What is clear to see when volunteering at Iron Gate or Night Light Tulsa, is that the definition of the word “home” doesn’t always mean four walls and a roof over your head. Sometimes home is the place where you find a loyal companion who trusts you and will stick by you no matter what. Now, thanks    to some very dedicated animal welfare officers and the generosity of donors, the word “homeless” does not have to include “hungry” in its definition.

No Responses to “Homeless, But Not Hungry”

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.