If you live in a big city, you’ve seen homeless teens and adults in public parks and on sidewalks, perhaps panhandling for money or food, and often with canine companions. Homelessness in the U.S. is an epidemic. At best estimate, 578,424 Americans were homeless in 2014 (based on the government-sponsored count conducted each January), and it’s estimated that 1.7 million youth will experience homelessness at some point throughout the year, with approximately 380,000 youth remaining homeless for a extended period of time.
The epidemic of homelessness, and particularly youth homelessness in this country, is a really important issue to me. I was kicked out of home when I was 17. I was really lucky to be able to couch surf through my senior year in high school, but my closest friends were living on the streets.
Until I became homeless, I was a serous dog agility competitor, but once I lost my home (and family), I had no choice but to make the devastating choice to rehome my dogs. Now, many years later, I’m so thrilled to have this opportunity to highlight the exceptional work of Collide NYC. This 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization provides much-needed services, resources, and support for the pets of young homeless people; it is definitely a Dogster Hero!
Housed at Graffiti Church in New York City’s East Village, Collide NYC commits to recognizing, as it says in its mission statement, “the critical role companion animals play in the overall well-being of their owners, as they offer emotional support, stability, and unconditional love. We believe all creatures are valuable, and for us, that means compassion extends from the end of the leash to the hand that holds it.”
Extremely limited resources exist for the pets of young homeless people in NYC (or for any age, anywhere in the country, really). Collide NYC provides dogs with high-quality and nutritious food, snacks, leashes, harnesses, toys, and all other supplies they need to be happy, warm, and healthy on the streets with their humans. I had the chance to talk with Collide NYC’s founder Heidi Powers about the organization and the clients it serves.
“I think it’s so important for people to understand there are many reasons people end up on the streets, and many reasons they stay. It can be so difficult for those with no or limited experience with this work to comprehend how it happens,” explains Powers. “I was a hairstylist before starting Collide and had a pretty ‘normal’ life. … I had no idea. And, some people simply don’t want to know because the truth can be hard to hear and hard to reconcile with why some things happen to some people and not to others.”
Collide NYC’s services also include drop-in support that provides clients with supplies for their dogs, and a family style meal on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for human and animals. It also facilitates a free spay/neuter program as well as preventative and ongoing veterinary care. Its clinic, staffed with Humane Society of New York support, offers legally required vaccinations and city dog licenses, and addresses any pressing medical needs the dogs have, including X-rays, surgery, and medication. It also continues to support the veterinary needs of clients who are transitioning off the streets and into stable housing.
Because the city’s homeless community, particularly the number of people with animal companions, differs season to season due to many people leaving the area during harsh winter months, Collide NYC is most active during spring, summer, and fall. This winter, the organization is providing on-site services on an on-call basis as clients express need, and it also has expanded veterinary services at a partnering site.
In talking about its winter services, Powers says, “I am the only one here for winter other than John, who helps me do distributions, deliveries, and door security on an on-call basis. I hire our sober clients, and they all leave town for the winter, as they live in vehicles, etc. We have always run Collide in seasonal segments, reevaluating and adjusting the program as we go.”
An ongoing housing and shelter crisis exists in NYC, with many youth having to be on lengthy wait lists just to access an emergency shelter bed. But those beds aren’t even options for homeless people with dogs because pets aren’t allowed in any of the city shelters. As a result, many who see their dogs as family members have no choice but to remain outside in order to keep their family together. This is just one reason on top of the extremely limited housing options that makes the possibility of transitioning off the streets incredibly daunting.
Collide NYC is one of the very few resources that exist to support the direct needs of homeless companion animals and their young people. Dog lovers interested in supporting this effort can make a financial donation or purchase from its regularly updated Amazon wish list, which reflects current needs for items like harnesses, dog coats, treats, and toys.
In talking about her role and the shifting climate of working with homeless communities in NYC, Powers explains, “We try very hard to be the best stewards possible of monies and supplies given, so that donors have a good understanding of how we work and feel good about their contribution. Homelessness is always present, but the areas open to those on the street, the police presence, the public support, and the agencies that assist are constantly changing. Neighborhoods gentrify, squats get turned into high-dollar developments, and the community starts to complain. Multiply that by a million when there is an animal involved.”
For many of us, our dogs are the most important members of our family — they are our babies, they are who we turn to for comfort, support, and companionship when we are struggling. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that many homeless people have dogs at their sides. Dogs love us unconditionally; they want to be with their people and don’t care if that’s on the street or in a mansion.
Everyday in NYC, I pass young people who are living on the streets with their dogs, and those dogs are almost always well behaved, happy, and healthy looking. One of the reasons for that is the fantastic and heroic work done by Collide NYC and its donors and volunteers, who ensure that pets of the homeless get the supplies and veterinary care they need, so they can continue being their people’s best friends and biggest supporters — no matter where they live or what the future holds.
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About the author: Sassafras Lowrey is a dog-obsessed author based in Brooklyn. She is the winner of the 2013 Berzon Emerging Writer Award from the Lambda Literary Foundation, and her latest novel Lost Boi was released in April. Sassafras is a certified trick dog instructor, and she assists with dog agility classes. Sassafras lives with her partner, two dogs of dramatically different sizes, two bossy cats, and a semi-feral kitten. She is always on the lookout for adventures with her canine pack. Learn more on her website www.SassafrasLowrey.com.