It was in 2006 while walking through the streets of New York City that Genevieve Frederick noticed a man panhandling for food with his dog.
“That image never left me,” she says. “My husband and I have two dogs; we know what it means to be a responsible pet owner. Pet food, shelter, well-checkups, teeth cleaning, vaccinations, grooming. And when they are ill or hurt, we know the costs of a veterinary visit. I just couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that this man had nothing and yet was trying to provide for his dog. The bond I saw between them, it wasn’t to be separated, but questions of how he was taking care of the dog swirled in my head. I felt compassion for the animal since he had no voice, and compassion for the man who loved him so much. That compelled me to do something, anything, for not only them, but others like them.”
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, there are three to five million homeless people in America, and after a little research, Frederick learned that five to 25 percent of those people are homeless with their pets.
“Homeless pet owners will often go without just in order to be able to put their pets first,” Frederick says. “Pets are non-judgmental. They are loyal, and they provide a deep comfort. The homeless get a type of normalcy by providing food and water for their pets, and in some cases, they provide them with reality. The tragic part is that these pets did not choose their owners, although in many cases these owners put the care of their pets before their own needs.”
What Frederick saw that day spurred her into action. Her idea — to develop a system where businesses and individuals would donate pet food that would then be distributed from food banks and soup kitchens to people in need — was not only a great idea, but it was one that has exploded across the nation. In 2008, she founded Feeding Pets of the Homeless, a 501c3 registered nonprofit. What started with one collection site and an office in the spare room of Frederick’s house has now ballooned to over 300 collection sites in almost every state in America as well as Canada.
The organization has since moved not once, but twice into a larger office space, and now it has a paid staff as well, with more than 300 volunteers. And with the expansion came the evolution to also provide veterinary care. Now doing business as Pets of the Homeless, the organization is intricately networked with veterinarians who provide care at a steeply discounted rate. “The teary voice you hear when someone calls to ask for help because their beloved pet is suffering has been one of the things that has stuck out the most for me,” Frederick says.
As Dr. Michael Ford of Galena Veterinary Hospital in Reno, Nevada, states, “As a veterinarian, I have to balance sound business practices with providing health care that improves the community we live in. We know that there are many animals who are owned by people who cannot afford to take care of them, many do not even have a permanent residence, yet they love their pets deeply. These pets, although loved, are at risk to carry many diseases that can spread to other pets in the community, and one of the ways that I personally balance all of these things is to work with Pets of the Homeless.”
Among the many dogs the organization has helped is Girlie, owned by a war veteran named David. She was diagnosed with pancreatitis. Her kidneys were failing, and without intervention from Pets of the Homeless, she would have had no hope. After tests, X-rays, and an IV antibiotic infusion that lasted for 36 hours, Girlie pulled through.
“I am a disabled American veteran,” David says. “I have been disfigured during my service for my country, and when I finally had to come ask for help for the one thing that I hold dear, the only one I have in the world, not one agency, not one so-called charity, not one vet that I contacted would help me, not until Pets of the Homeless intervened.”
He adds, “I cannot express my gratitude enough. Not only were they the only organization to help me, but their quick and decisive action saved not only my service animal (who is more like my child), but also me. I cannot describe the feeling of isolation and helplessness you experience when your beloved friend is so sick and ill. You feel disgusted that you do not have the resources to provide the lifesaving measures that they need. Then you get that call, the one that, although you are still one of the invisible people, the one that others look at but don’t see — as though you don’t exist or perhaps prefer if you didn’t — that finally after all that, Pets of the Homeless will help you.”
Staff and volunteers spend their time helping those who many have deemed invisible, but when it comes to their organization, people are taking notice. They ask for help, and the community responds. To date, 361.4 tons of food has been donated, an amount that would retail at over $1.4 million. With PetSmart being its largest contributor and the WHC Foundation being its largest donor, Pets of the Homeless still relies heavily on community support to keep them going. With volunteers doing everything from setting up collection sites, cold-calling companies for donations, and repackaging food into smaller amounts so it is more easily carried by the homeless, it would be nowhere without community support.
Pets of the Homeless has a lot of plans for its future. “Our goals include establishing a full spay/neuter free program for all pets of the homeless, and to get more homeless shelters involved with our sleeping crate program so the homeless can have shelter with their pets,” says Frederick, but they can’t do that without the continued support of the nation that they serve.
“We are always looking for people who want to get involved,” Frederick says. “We have a full list on our website of ways that people can help: everything from recruiting new collection sites and distribution organizations (food banks), to simple things such as re-bagging our food into smaller portions and even just sharing our Facebook page.” With its largest needs being donations to pay for emergency veterinary care, veterinary clinics that are willing to provide discounted services, and businesses that are willing to become a collection site, there are enough opportunities that everyone can find some way to help the cause.
Because at the end of the day, it takes a team effort to save a life, as Frederick explains: “One of my favorite stories was about a dog named Baby. Baby belonged to a homeless man who lived near a creek that bordered a golf course, and was familiar to not only the employees, but the players as well. One day we received a phone call from a woman named Joy who was an employee at the course. They noticed that Baby seemed unable to bear any weight on her leg, found us through a web search, and she explained that she and her husband could provide transportation for Baby if we could find someone to help her out.”
She adds, “After a long search and many cold calls, we were able to find a hospital that was willing to examine Baby and take X-rays. Unfortunately, it turned out that Baby would need a complicated surgery, and it was one that the vet was unable to do. We were told that not only would we need to find a specialist who could perform the surgery, but that the cost would be about $3,000. As we scrambled to come up with the resources to cover the expenses, Joy was making calls on her end, and eventually UC Davis and their veterinary students stepped in and said they could do the surgery for free. Back at the golf course where Baby called home, the players and the employees all pitched in to raise money to provide any additional transportation that was needed.”
And that effort, that’s all it takes to save a life. It takes a group of people to notice the people that, as David says, “many see, but don’t really see,” and it takes those same people to save an animal and their human companion from suffering. We all love our pets, we would all do anything for them, and the reality of the situation is that many of us are only one paycheck away from becoming someone who could need help from Pets of the Homeless, one check away from being the person that so many choose not to see.
Pets of the Homeless — it sees them. It sees not only the homeless, but their pets as well. To date, it is the only national organization focusing on providing food and veterinary care to homeless and their pets, and for many, it is the only hope they have.
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About the author: Eden Strong is a quirky young woman with a love for most animals with fur. Read her blog, It Is Not My Shame to Bear.