"We [homeless] actually care about our animals. They're our only companion on the street who we know won't leave us...They're our kids. We put clothes on them. We walk them around. We all take care of them. It's a sense of responsibility, too. There's that one thing that's missing from your life: an animal. It gives you something to care for and a purpose for living."
Homeless on and off for the past ten years, Jennifer knows through and through how helpful an animal can be - "They're your kids. Fur babies." Entering her life only a few months ago, Hash is the fourth animal that Jennifer has had since she first became homeless at age 17 - the others lost to illness, theft, and shelter policies that made it impossible for her to keep both her dog and her child in a safe space. Today, I am meeting her in her new apartment in Kirkland, where she was finally offered housing just a couple months prior. Hash, a major goofball, wears the cone of shame after a recent vet visit to help with some foot problems, although he doesn't let that stop him from showing off his abundance of energy.
Jennifer tells me that the things she loves most about having a dog is the companionship and how much safer she feels. "I feel safe, definitely in those neighborhoods. Even though he's the sweetest dog he's still intimidating. Definitely the companionship [is what I like best]. When I get depressed he's right there. They know. I have PTSD so he's my comfort animal. Around Christmas I felt really depressed. I was alone. He laid with me all day. Watching him play with his his squeaky toy made my day."
Her first, a cat named Iggy, became infected with feline leukemia virus, forcing Jennifer to make the decision to give Iggy to a friend who was housed to help with caretaking. She remembers cuddling a lot with Iggy and that she would spange for Iggy's food instead of her own. "It was easier to have a cat [on the streets]," she recalls, "they're more compact. I would put Iggy in my backpack and take her to work."
Sativa, a young pit bull, was the next animal that Jennifer took in. Sativa was in poor health when Jennifer got her, but over time she nursed her back to health. Sativa also came at an important time in Jennifer's life - she was newly sober and Sativa kept her on track. "My focus was more on my dog than on getting high. She was a big inspiration. When she was sick I wanted to spend my money to help her rather than getting drugs." Jennifer had been training Sativa to be a service animal to help with her disabilities from fibromyalgia and partial blindness when Sativa was taken from her. A local animal rescue organization in Santa Monica had repeatedly been asking to buy Sativa off of her for $2,000, but Jennifer kept refusing. One day, she left Sativa with a friend while she went to the bathroom - when she came out she found her friend in handcuffs and Sativa in police custody. She believes the rescue organization had a role in the police taking Sativa and the fact that she was never able to locate her afterwards.
Most recently, Jennifer had a border collie mix named Ellie. She was living with friends in an RV in Northlake at the time, several of whom also had dogs. On her path to housing from the RV, Jennifer ended up in Mary's Place, a shelter for homeless women, children, and families. Although Mary's Place allows animals, Jennifer recalls that she was told that she wouldn't be able to have Ellie with her full time and would have to come and go at specific times of the day due to other clients' religious concerns. She had her baby, Willow, with her at the time and, in the choice to stay in shelter full time with her child or constantly move with Ellie, she came to the difficult decision to give Ellie to a friend. At the time, she did not have a physician to write her a letter designating Ellie as an emotional support animal, making her attempts at finding shelter for them both even harder.
At the suggestion of the manager of her new apartment complex and the help of her therapist, Jennifer now has a letter stating that Hash is her emotional support animal. He's also been incredibly helpful with her sight disability - "It's especially hard for me to see at night. Hash helps with that. He'll start growling if someone is coming near us, especially in the dark. He's my eyes." Although Hash is great as her eyes and in helping with mental health issues, Jennifer is still working on him being more helpful for her fibromyalgia. At the moment, his energetic personality has actually made her fibromyalgia worse, for instance when he pulls on the leash - "When I get upset it's great cuz he's there and he's comforting. I want to train him to be a service animal so he can help me with my physical disability and pull me up if I'm down and not just pull me down," she says. She's actively working on training, but finding a professional trainer to assist them is not economically feasible for her at this point.
Before I leave her home, I meet Jennifer's boyfriend, Dallas, who begins to tell me about his own dog, Dakotah, who is his seizure alert dog and who has saved his life on multiple occasions during his experience with homelessness. It is obvious that they both understand the importance of their relationship with animals and support each other in fostering this bond.