On a thundering gray and rainy Saturday morning, Alice DelBosque stacks cans of cat food, plastic bags full of goods and puts a loaf of bread on top.
“Can you guys do something with this?” she asks, rattling a box of pasta as folks from the camp approached her.
Each Saturday and Sunday, DelBosque drives over railroad tracks and down dirt roads to help feed the pets of unhoused folks across Kansas City. This petite, proud Mexican woman runs Angel Hearts Rescue Inc. out of her forest green Nissan XTerra.
Her daughter, Marie Kissick, wrote to curiousKC during a call for queries about homelessness:
“We work specifically with the houseless and getting them resources and animal care for their pets. We have seen (a) 200% rise of pets in camps,” she wrote. “(Much) of the help the city gives does not take into account those who have pets. They can’t go into shelters and they need lots of help. (One) camp has over 30 pets.”
Over the years, camp residents have come to trust them. One is Sabir (he only identified himself with his first name), who’s been living in encampments around the metro for three years now. On a recent weekend, he was at the one by N.E. Industrial Parkway.
He and other residents say they just need the basics. Bandaids, antiseptics and water.
“Water solves a lot of problems,” he added.
These days he’s looking for work and trying to stay warm and dry. He also has a pup to feed. Sabir has a peppy fur companion, Traxie, who he’s had for three months now.
“I thank God for him … He loves people,” Sabir said.
In a 2016 study, researchers estimated that about 25% of the unhoused population have pets. A more recent study from 2020 shows that one in 10 people experiencing homelessness have pets.
Now the need to care for pets and houseless or housing insecure folks has become more dire, exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.
In its first report during the global pandemic, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2020 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report recorded a 5.6% increase of houseless individuals living in Missouri, compared to 2019. In Kansas, HUD’s update showed an increase of 2.9%. Both figures are not believed to be fully representative of the pandemic’s impact.
The 2020 data found that more single adults experiencing life in and out of permanent housing were living on the street than in shelters in 2020 — a first for the official government count.
The trend continued, and a 2021 HUD assessment found a “steep” 8% decrease in members of the houseless population living in shelters.
The tough decision whether or not to take shelter amid the spread of COVID-19 became a compounding issue faced by those living with pets.
On top of this, the pandemic forced veterinary centers and mobile vet clinics to limit hours, appointments and in some cases shut their doors completely.
So DelBosque stepped up. After caring for her aging parents and working at her day job, Alice visits as many camps as she can. Some days she drops a spayed or neutered pet off to their owner or takes a pet to get its vaccines. But boarding pets for folks who are in and out of housing has been difficult.
“We don’t have a facility, so when all these people who call and they say, ‘I have a dog in my car,’ it’s like I’ve taken in so many in my home that I can’t take on any more,” she said. “I wish we could do more but there are so many people who are displaced now. After the COVID situation, it just got more than I’ve ever seen before.”
Her daughter, who for years accompanied her mom on these runs, sees how hard her mother works and admits they need volunteers.
“This is her baby,” Kissick said. “It has always just been the two of us.”
Anton Washington, with Kansas City’s Houseless Task Force, knows there’s something missing to connect community providers and those in need.
As an advocate, he acknowledges the disjointed nature of outreach and lack of official resources. He sees opportunity.
Before speaking with Flatland, he hadn’t heard of Angel Hearts Rescue Inc. Now he hopes to partner up, not only to bolster outreach but to also give Alice time to rest.
“We (have) got to break these particular types of silos … and then work together,” Washington said. “If we’re not doing that, then guess what? We’re harming even the animals, (that’s) family to those who are having them in encampments.”
Not everyone who sees someone on the street understands the value of pet companionship, however. Researchers, advocates for the houseless community and groups like Feeding Pets of the Homeless are pushing to educate more people about this issue.
A 2016 study entitled “No Pets Allowed: Discrimination, Homelessness, and Pet Ownership” identified the most common problems houseless folks face. One of those was bias against unhoused people owning pets. Bias or prejudice manifests in different ways, such as calling animal control on folks on the street, according to the report.
“Owning a pet while homeless is not a crime, but many people believe they have a right to report pet ownership by an entire population of people as though it is against the law,” it read.
What may appear to be a small inconvenience to most people is a big inconvenience to someone with limited to no income, no housing and no way of paying off a citation.
For camp residents, pets are comfort and protect them against pests that may invade or scrounge around for food. That’s the case for Mark, an unhoused veteran, who lives in an encampment along the Missouri River. His cats ward off the vermin and keep his blankets warm, he said.
“She’s curled up on my pillow right now,” he said, smiling as he pointed toward his tent.
Mark is currently being connected to housing resources, but this raises another challenge — not all shelters or low-income housing accept pets.
Washington said it’s already difficult to find housing for folks, much less those with pets. Several times he’s been told, “I can’t go to a shelter, I have a dog.”
So, rather than give away their pet, folks opt to remain on the street or with their camp.
Why Do They Have Pets?
A pet presents challenges when looking for shelter or staying fed, but for many, the benefits of companionship and security outweigh the cons.
Roughly 61% of the cases Feeding Pets of the Homeless have dealt with were women. Genevieve Frederick, founder and president of the organization, said for these women, even the tiniest dog offers a sense of protection and security.
When everything else has been lost, or taken away, a person’s pet is still there. As Frederick said, “Those pets don’t know that they’re homeless. They’re with their person. That is their home.”
“Those pets don’t know that they’re homeless. They’re with their person. That is their home.”Genevieve Frederick, founder and president of Feeding Pets of the Homeless
“It is so important to keep these pets with these people, because this is their lifeline. This is their companion. This is their home,” Frederick added. “That pet and that human are together 24/7. To split them up, to have to make that choice, do I go into a shelter and relinquish my dog to the animal control people, or do I stay on the streets?”
Beyond the connection with the pet’s owner, a pet can help connect other folks in a camp, or encourage someone on the street to stop and say hello.
“These people need to know that they’re not invisible. They’re humans, they need our respect, and these dogs are a way to open up, to be able to talk, to interact, to find out what their story is,” Frederick said. “You don’t have to give them money, just give them the (knowledge) that you care enough about them to actually come up and talk to them.”
The connection between animal and human welfare has been a key focus at the Lawrence Humane Society.
Before her current role as director of development and communications at the humane society in Lawrence, Kansas, Elina Alterman served as a social worker for the shelter.
The unique role is a part of the Crisis Pet Retention program at the humane society. Through the program, anyone can get pet food, cat litter, vaccinations and even boarding for their pets.
Often Alterman would be shocked to hear statements like, “If someone can’t afford to have a pet and they shouldn’t have one, (or) they don’t deserve one.”
It’s a common thought, but Alterman said it only takes a little bit of explaining to change the mindset.
“For a lot of folks, it’s not a luxury … it’s companionship,” Alterman said. “A number of the folks that we see, it’s their only companionship. It’s their only family. It’s their only sense of connectedness (and) this is unconditional love from an entity that’s not going to judge them for whatever is going on.”
The connection between an individual and their pet is often so important, Alterman said, that they will choose to feed their pet over feeding themselves.
“We have seen how people will put their pets before themselves,” Alterman said and recalled an example. “He was fainting at work, and he was not doing well, (they) found out that he wasn’t eating, he was giving his food to his dog.”
This is why the shelter doesn’t ask questions when someone comes and asks for pet food. If they make it to the shelter on the outskirts of town in search of pet food, they must need it.
Alterman says challenges facing houseless individuals living with pets hasn’t reached its apex. The same goes for her group’s efforts to make a difference.
The Lawrence Humane Society hopes to partner with more organizations to address the issue. Alterman specifically mentioned Lawrence nonprofit Just Food and its “grocery store” food assistance model, which provides client choice and, in turn, client dignity.
She said another potential avenue is to organize alongside an organization like Meals on Wheels and senior resource centers. Such a collaboration could fill the needs of seniors living with fixed income or disability assistance, which is the case for about one-third of Alterman’s applications from those looking for help.
More Than Just a Bag of Dog Food
Many folks who find themselves on the streets with a pet need just a little bit of help.
It’s something simple, like a vaccination record, or a couple of minutes to get something done in a building that doesn’t allow pets.
Frederick remembers when she and her team participated in a Homeless Connect event. In the parking lot of the event, they provided vaccinations, wellness exams and watched individual’s pets so they could go inside the convention center, where other charitable organizations offered everything from hair cuts to pro bono attorneys.
Toward the end of the event, one dog was still in her care. Finally, a woman ran out and said in the time she’d been there, not only did her dog get vaccinated, but she was able to go inside, talk with a lawyer and get the warrant for her arrest taken off the record.
“Now, she was able to walk the streets and not be afraid of being arrested, and then be separated from her dog,” Frederick recalled. “That is just one story out of thousands that we get all the time.”
Locally, KC Pet Project started a program similar to Feeding Pets of the Homeless, called Keep ‘Em Together KC.
Tori Fugate, chief communications officer of KC Pet Project, said Keep ‘Em Together staff members went out to some of the encampments around the city to talk with folks and to learn what they most needed.
Overwhelmingly, camp residents said they need pet vaccinations, so the next day veterinarians and clinicians volunteered to go out and vaccinate, microchip and license these pets.
“Within like 48 hours, two of the people said they had housing vouchers because their pets had rabies vaccines,” Fugate said. “It’s little things like that.”
Fugate said when possible, the Keep ‘Em Together staff prefer to bring services out to folks rather than the other way around. Some have difficulty trusting the system and in this case, believing that a volunteer picking up their pet will bring it back the next day.
“It’s really about building relationships and just having conversations with people and again, asking them what they need,” Fugate said.
Keep ‘Em Together also offers a Home Away From Home program which gives folks a safe place for their pets while they work on finding housing. Fugate said it’s a 30- to 90-day program that places pets temporarily into foster homes, just until the owner is ready to take them back.
“This is where we see a lot of people who are experiencing houselessness, (who) are unhoused, that need a little bit of support or time, particularly time,” Fugate said. “There is a severe lack of housing for people in Kansas City that is affordable, where they can have pets … They can’t find housing for them and their pets, and they need a little bit more time to try to keep finding a new place to live.”
The organization also works with local domestic violence centers that don’t allow pets. Fugate said most of what the program sees are people who are in crisis.
“Usually, it’s somebody that’s experiencing a moment of crisis, and the last thing that we want is for anybody to have to give up their beloved pet, that they’ve had their whole lives, during that time,” Fugate said.
There’s also an issue with allowing pets into homeless shelters or emergency cold shelters.
Frederick, of Feeding Pets of the Homeless, said only 3% of homeless shelters in the United States accept pets.
But advocates say being a pet owner who is houseless should not be another barrier to housing. Research shows that ”services that adopt pet accommodations report increased engagement by people experiencing homelessness.”
Those services range, mostly to support a person to do what they need to do to stay safe and healthy. Research shows barriers such as pet ownership or having a substance use disorder cause a revolving door of issues.
“When health care facilities, public transportation, shelters and other housing services do not permit pets, people with pets cannot see a doctor, participate in job-finding services, ride a subway to seek support, or stay in temporary housing,” according to the “No Pets Allowed” study out of Seattle University.
“Pet restrictions cause people experiencing homelessness to refuse available housing and shelter because acceptance would mean giving up a family member.”
Feeding Pets of the Homeless hopes to change that. Their hope is that more temporary housing and shelters will begin to allow pets on the premises, taking a housing first approach.
Feeding Pets of the Homeless would even assist, Frederick said, and ship collapsible, metal crates to any shelter that sends a request.
“It is our hope that they’ll open up their doors to that pet and that human so that they may have that opportunity to start working with a social worker to get them out of this situation,” Frederick said.