Homeless Sacramentans experience unexpected benefits and persistent challenges from pet ownership

“There’s been a couple people that have tried to follow me at night. But I’ve got these two big dogs who will do anything to protect me.”

Richard Dean credits his pit bull mix, Shunka, with saving his life.

Richard Dean credits his pit bull mix, Shunka, with saving his life.

photos by gavin mcintyre

Richard Dean remembers when Shunka saved his life. It was a couple of years ago. He was breaking down. After a failed trip to the welfare offices, Dean suffered a panic attack on a bus ride to Loaves & Fishes.

“All the way back I was saying, ’What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with me?’” Dean said. He’d recently stopped using drugs, but he was suffering mentally.

The moment he returned to his dog, Shunka, he hugged her. Immediately, he felt better.

“That was when I realized, ’You know what? I’m going to go over to Guest House [Homeless Clinic] and I’m going to get treatment,’” he explained. “I realized that I’m not the only one in the picture, now.

“I had something that I had to take care of.”

Sacramento residents are no strangers to the homeless community and their pets. But few have asked why homeless people take on companions given the challenges of owning a pet while living on the streets. In a society where some view homeless pet ownership as a disservice to the animal, such questions are worth addressing.

Five to 10 percent of the country’s estimated 3.5 million homeless have dogs or cats, according to Pets of the Homeless, a national nonprofit dedicated to providing food and veterinary care to pets of homeless individuals. And while there are no concrete statistics for the Sacramento area, a January 2015 survey found 2,659 people living homeless in the region on one particular night.

By Pets of the Homeless’ numbers, some 133 to 265 of those counted were living homeless with pets.

James Shea and his orange-and-white cat, Milo, stand among this group. They’ve found themselves in need of services this winter after a recent injury left Shea, 32, unable to work. In times like these, Shea has considered finding other living situations for Milo, who turns 13 this Christmas. But their bond is too strong.

“Everyone should have the opportunity participate in love in their life, to whatever capacity,” said Shea. “And animals are an outlet to do that.”

That’s why he bought a small car to keep Milo sheltered, and utilizes local services to keep him in good health.

Milo stays safe, warm and fed during the day at Anneke’s Haven, a 20-kennel facility offered to pets of guests at Loaves & Fishes. They stay there while their human companions eat, find jobs or obtain services. The building is named after Anneke Vos, a longtime advocate of the health and safety of Sacramento’s homeless pets. This place was Vos’ vision come true, opening just weeks after her death in February 2011.

Kennel supervisor Margaret Gonzales sees the deep connections homeless guests share with their pets. “It helps them,” she said. “It’s therapy.”

It’s often much more.

Gus Gus and Zeus are Sarah Soto’s certified service animals. Three-year-old Gus Gus is a PTSD dog for attack and rape victims. And Zeus alerts others when Soto has an epileptic seizure.

They also serve a different, though no less important, role: In the evenings, while Soto’s husband, Oso, is out working with the local nonprofit Safe Ground, she is alone in the streets. Gus Gus and Zeus make sure she is safe.

James Shea is homeless, but actually bought a car to keep his cat, Milo, safe and warm.

“There’s been a couple people that have tried to follow me at night,” Soto said. “But I’ve got these two big dogs who will do anything to protect me.”

This is true for virtually all homeless residents with dogs, including Dean, for whom Shunka often serves as a kind of proximity alarm at night. “If she’s growling, it’s OK. But if she starts barking I know they’re too close and I know they mean harm.”

Such protection, paired with the deep, therapeutic bonds those in homeless situations develop with their animal companions, carries the relationship between human and animal to another level.

“There are two words that I do not use as I associate with a dog, and those are ’owner’ and ’master,’” Dean said of Shunka. “I am her human. I am her human companion.”

“We’re friends,” said Shea of Milo. “The agreement was that I don’t own him.”

The Sotos consider Gus Gus and Zeus family, referring to them as “the kids” in casual conversation.

These animals and humans share unique bonds because of their circumstance. Three years ago, Dean found Shunka in a box left under the bridge on 12th Street. The Soto’s dogs were homeless as well. Many in the community tell stories of feeding and caring for stray cats that find their way to campsites on the American River. In fact, the majority of pets owned by the homeless community were themselves homeless at some point.

“There’s a real reciprocity of care that I think is really neat,” said Loaves & Fishes executive director Joan Burke. “It’s an empowering feeling to say, ’Hey, I can do this. I can help someone.’”

Anneke’s Haven fuels this sense of responsibility. Guests must keep their animals’ food and water bowls full, walk them twice daily and clean up after their companions when someone has an accident in the kennel.

In order to utilize services at Anneke’s Haven, visitors must also make sure their dogs and cats are spayed or neutered and up-to-date on vaccinations. This requires using the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine’s free monthly services at their Loaves & Fishes location, the Mercer Clinic.

It’s worth it. Dean credits Shunka for beating his drug addiction. Shea went ahead and bought a car to care for Milo (and also himself).

But the act of simply having a pet also creates huge barriers for homeless Sacramentans.

Besides Wind Youth Services (which only serves unaccompanied homeless youth), no local emergency housing shelter provides nighttime kennels for homeless guests, leaving most pet owners out in the elements with their companions. In terms of long-term housing, landlords at low-income-housing facilities rarely accept formerly homeless residents with pets unless they are registered as service animals.

“It’s a barrier to people getting in, which is a barrier to getting employment help or mental health services,” Burke explained.

Thankfully, it’s relatively easy to incorporate kennels into homeless shelters, which is why Emily Halcon, the city of Sacramento’s Homeless Services Coordinator, started a task force to see what the region can do about serving the pets of the homeless community.

Advocates say the city needs to move fast, because people like Dean aren’t leaving their dogs behind any time soon.

Dean originally became homeless five years ago after his mother, for whom he was caretaker, passed away. When he looks at Shunka, he is reminded of her.

“There are times when I know my guardian angel is in her,” he said, eyes welling up. “There’s just things that she’ll do where she will remind me that my mom is still here, helping someone keep an eye on me.”