Homeless people with pets are usually criticized and sometimes turned away from shelters. But that’s starting to change.
His name is Bud the Amazing Wonder Dog, but the huge German shepherd-rottweiler mix was not feeling amazing or wonderful during his clinic visit, as he whimpered and tried to steady himself on an examination table too small for a dog his size.
His owner, a homeless man named Stan, wrapped his arms around Bud, whispering, “I’m sorry, baby.” Stan, who asked that his last name not be published, told the veterinarian that Bud has a cramp in his cheek and arthritic pain in his paws.
Bud the Amazing Wonder Dog is one of many animals who’ve come to The Doney Clinic hosted at Union Gospel Mission in downtown Seattle in the more than 30 years it has been running.
It’s one of very few clinics in the country like it. Named for Bud Doney, a veterinarian in Interbay who started it in 1985, the clinic is free — the only requirement is that owners get their pets neutered after the first appointment.
The clinic is funded entirely by donations and assembled, then taken down, by volunteers every other Saturday. Homeless and low-income people start lining up as early as 8 a.m. on clinic days, saving their spots in line until 3 p.m., when the clinic opens. Volunteers estimate the clinic sees about a thousand clients or more a year.
There aren’t accurate counts of the number of people with pets and no home, but advocates estimate five to 10 percent of homeless people have pets. More than 550,000 people were counted nationwide — more than 11,600 of them in King County — on one night in 2017. That’s a lot of homeless pets.
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Homeless people who keep animals are often met with criticism. In the introduction to her book “My Dog Always Eats First: Homeless People and Their Animals,” Leslie Irvine, a sociologist who studies human-animal relationships, describes being so concerned after seeing a man panhandling with his dog in the middle of a street in Boulder, where she teaches at the University of Colorado, that she crossed the street and offered to buy the dog. The man wouldn’t take her money.
Project Homeless is a Seattle Times initiative that explores the causes of homelessness, explains what the Seattle region is doing about it and spotlights potential solutions. It is funded by the The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Seattle Mariners, and Starbucks. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Project Homeless content.
Many homeless people take better care of their dogs than themselves, said Marti Casey, the newly appointed president of the Doney board of directors.
If you’re homeless and need help for a pet
Pets of the Homeless is a Nevada-based nonprofit that can connect you with help, either through their website, petsofthehomeless.org, or via phone: 775-841-7463
“A lot of people who come in here don’t take themselves to the doctor,” Casey said.
And there’s evidence homeless pets could actually be better off; one study found that they were healthier than housed pets, less likely to be obese, and had fewer behavioral issues like aggression to strangers or separation anxiety.
“They typically have a constant connection with their human,” said Dr. Victoria Lawson, a University of Washington professor who studies poverty and has written about Irvine and others’ work on animals and homelessness.
“Which is a much more natural way for a pack animal to live, instead of waiting for those three hours a day that their human’s alive and awake.”
Writers like Lawson and Irvine have also pointed out that dogs can protect their humans and alert others if their human is in trouble. Having an animal can help during the stressful time of living outside.
“Bud pulls me out of isolation,” Stan wrote in an email, both physically — he has to get up to walk Bud — and emotionally. People open up more to Stan when they see Bud the Amazing Wonder Dog. “I believe people resonate with the vulnerability of the dog,” Stan wrote.
The first person in line for the first Doney clinic of 2018 was Marguerite Gardner. She’s been there since 8 a.m. She gets up at 4 a.m. most days to walk her two little dogs, Boo Boo and Cha Cha, because she likes to let them run without leashes in Belltown, where she lives on Social Security in a subsidized apartment, before it’s full of traffic.
On a Saturday in early January, Gardner sat in the middle of a chaotic scene; people bring dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters and even birds to get feathers trimmed, nails clipped, eyes treated, and referrals written. But today is especially hectic; the last clinic was canceled because of Christmas break, and demand has built up.
Despite their upsides, pets are not usually allowed in shelters, says Daniel Malone, director of the Downtown Emergency Services Center (DESC), one of the largest and oldest shelter providers in Seattle. Shelters used to be strict about whether those were trained, licensed service animals, but many have become more lax.
“Providers are less resistant to that kind of stuff than they used to be,” Malone said. “At least, we are.”
DESC’s Navigation Center, a new city-funded shelter focused on serving people who are coming out of unsanctioned tent camps, opened last year accepting all pets, whether or not they are service animals. Elsewhere, shelters in Los Angeles are receiving county support to expand accommodation for animals, according to the advocacy nonprofit My Dog is My Home.
As for Bud the Amazing Wonder Dog, his owner Stan managed to take Bud into supportive housing with him. They’ve been together for 12 years, but Bud is getting old. He’s developed severe arthritis. Stan takes Bud to the pet clinic, where he can get medication for his dog’s arthritis, vaccinations and flea treatments.
But Stan worries that even though they’re off the street, Bud’s days may be numbered. As the two of them waited on the floor of the Union Gospel Mission for Bud’s medication, Stan teared up.
“Without this clinic there’s no way I could’ve … had him,” Stan said. “That’s why I’m getting emotional right now, because I can’t take as good care of him as he deserves.”