On any given night, 82,000 men, women, and children in Los Angeles County sleep in public, often dangerous places. Many chose to keep their dogs over claiming beds at overcapacity shelters.
Only one area mission, PATH Hollywood in L.A., provides kennels for dogs of the homeless. However, this “shelter within a shelter” has an eight- to 10-month waiting list, leaving many pet parents to tough it out on the streets.
Another hard reality: Three-quarters of the homeless population are unemployed and rely on food stamps, food banks, or churches to fill their aching bellies. Few organizations offer dog food, so the homeless must share provided meals with their pets.
That’s where Julie Austin’s Doggie Food Bank swoops in. Fully launched one year ago, Austin’s brain-child was born when the economy tanked in 2008. The Swiggies water bottle inventor had lost her home and began flying through her life savings when she spotted a newly homeless woman — with a dog and suitcases — holding up a sign.
“I had never, ever talked to a homeless person. [But] I thought, ‘That is pretty scary. That could be me,'” she recalled. Austin didn’t have a penny to her name, but she promised the woman she’d take care of her dog. “I went around to my neighbors and told them the [whole] story. They all donated.”
Since then, Austin has been on a one-woman mission — walking all over L.A., hunting down homeless camps, handing out leashes, and providing kibble to over two dozen canines every day.
“A lot of these people already had dogs. Some befriended dogs [living] on the streets,” she said.
The owners are resourceful, responsible. They’ll find makeshift water bowls and hose their dogs behind the 7/11. They’ll even create leashes out of ropes or chains.
“The dogs are clean,” she said. “The owners are not. [That’s because] their dogs are the only thing they have, their only friends. They keep them warm. They’re protection. They’re companionship.”
Austin’s daily trek has opened her eyes to the struggles of street life.
“Many people ended up there because they lost their jobs or had some [other] catastrophe,” she said.
Jim and Sue are prime examples. The couple and their two dogs, Mercedes and Benz, were thrust into homelessness after Jim was hit by a car. He lost his job, and then his unemployment ran out. Now, they live in a tent in the park.
“They have a system,” Austin said. “She sleeps during the night, and he is, you know, the guard. It’s not safe down there.”
James, who lost his job as a construction worker, lives out of a wagon with his three dogs — Dorian, Lucky, and Milo — yet he’s willing to pull food for Austin, without pay, around L.A.
Then there’s Mike, who lives under the 405 bridge. He has never looked Austin in the eyes. But when she delivers food for his dog, Ups, a smile spreads across the man’s face from ear to ear as he says, “Thank you! Thank you!” Austin’s “hand-up” is more than just dog food — it’s hope.
Austin is looking to spread that hope and expand her services. They’re powered by monetary donations from Viva Vitamins, Bolster Designs, and GoFundMe campaigns. Eventually, she’d like to offer free medical care.
“If a dog needs surgery … checkups, dental care, that’s a huge expense,” Austin said. “If that was me with my dog, and she needed that, it would just kill me.”
Austin is gunning to raise $5,000 for a van, which she plans to wrap in sponsorship logos. As CEO of the consulting firm Creative Innovation Groupplans, she speaks on innovation and international business at local corporations and nonprofits. Austin donates a portion of her fees to the Doggie Food Bank.
To learn more, volunteer, donate, or hire Austin for a local speaking event, visit the Doggie Food Bank website.