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Pets help — but also hinder — the homeless

Animals can impede efforts to get housing

SHARE Pets help — but also hinder — the homeless

PORTLAND, Ore. — Cindy Greaney is grateful to have friends like Baron and Minni. Her dogs keep her warm, protect her at night, and give the 36-year-old homeless woman a reason to keep going.

It matters little that her pets prevent her from entering a homeless shelter, moving into low-income housing or taking odd jobs.

"They're what make me keep my sanity and not jump over that bridge," said Greaney, who sleeps out in the open with her dogs. "There's no way I could leave them."

Greaney says one of her dogs once kept her from getting raped. Ray Pointer says his dog chased off another homeless man who was trying to steal his bike. Jerry Smith credits his dog with solving his drinking problem.

But pets that keep fear and loneliness at bay also keep many of their owners from taking steps to help themselves, homeless advocates say.

The problem is that homeless shelters and transitional housing ban animals, and apartment buildings require pet deposits of $200 or more.

Jerry Smith has to store pet food for his dog, Bert, in a locker at an outreach center.

"Anytime living out here on the street that you have an extra mouth to feed it gets difficult," said Smith. "But I'm not giving my dog up, so I'm going to stay sleeping outside."

The problem even extends to job training, interviews and commuting to work, said Will Harris, director of development at the JOIN Center for Involvement, a nonprofit agency that assists homeless with housing and job training and offers free pet food and veterinarian care.

"You can't bring a pet to a job interview and tie them up in front of a business. You can't bring your dog on the bus," he said. "For most of these people, unless they can find someone they trust to take care of their pets, they won't take that step."

No one knows how many of Portland's homeless have pets — advocates estimate the homeless population at up to 3,000, in a city of about half a million — but the numbers are growing, said Ashley LeGore, who coordinates free vet care through the Pet Samaritan clinic.

"Homeless people think having more pets means more love for them. A lot of homeless people seek that out and need that," LeGore said.

Six to seven truckloads of donated food used to feed all the clinic's homeless animals for a year, LeGore said, but now it only lasts six months. Vet bills run $200 to $1,000 a month, depending on the season, she said.

Portland's pet-loving reputation — there are designated dog parks and dog day-care centers — may explain why people go out of their way to help homeless pet owners.

Ray Pointer, who has been homeless for 10 years, found love and acceptance with his tawny 2-year-old dog Brutus.

Pointer rescued Brutus from another homeless man who beat the dog and kept him tied on a short leash for days at a time.

It took months before Pointer got Brutus to trust him, but by then the two had formed a deep bond. Brutus sleeps with Pointer every night, guards his camping gear and runs alongside Pointer's bike.

"Him and I came a long way together," Pointer said. "He comes first, he's like a kid. He eats better than I do."

Pointer and girlfriend Brandy Mackey recently adopted another dog, a honey-and-black Rottweiler puppy named Pepper.

Greaney said she and several other homeless pet owners band together to care for their animals. Members of the group take turns watching five or six dogs, freeing the others to work odd jobs. And they often share the $20 cost of a 40-pound bag of dog food.

Still, Greaney said she has had to give up several jobs — including a $50 house-cleaning job and a $110 baby-sitting offer — because no one was around to watch Baron and Minni.

But Greaney doesn't believe that's cause for resentment.

"I don't blame my dogs for me being out here on the streets, I blame myself. They're on the streets too," she said. "I would lie down and die for them. I would rather sit here in this dirt and die than give them up."