A Community's Convocation
by Kimball Lewis
Now is the time for us to look toward the disenfranchised who,
along with their companion animals find themselves relegated to the off-ramps and
alleys of our cities, towns and villages. Now is the time to mend the gaping tear
in the fabric of society as we move from our historical apathy toward these often
unnoticed characters playing their cameo role in life's cartoon.
Let us turn toward these souls beyond our passing shout of disapproval so that they may know that there is love and compassion among all mankind. Now is the time to assuage the anguish felt by animals and humans left homeless though it be through mental disease, marital abuse, substance abuse or through acts beyond the grasp of their control.
Make of yourselves a pillar by which your friends and neighbors may use as a master template. Envision kindness as we seek to mitigate the mournful cries of cold and hungry children living in tents, campers cars and underpasses across this land of mighty prosperity.
Make of yourself a guide for those less tolerant --that their hatred and prejudice might be quelled by the overpowering might of love and humanity.
Make of yourself not a judge nor a rumor monger whose instrument of hate spreads like a cancer among an already falling nation. Use the light of hope and prosperity, dignity and freedom which burns in every man and woman in
this blessed land as a sword honed by the fire of faith, to hand out a just and Nobel deed in each and every day wherever your travels may take you.
Judge not the downtrodden or misguided and hand you out not a single helping of wrath for we are all brother and sister and not one of us is above the other and indeed, many of you are only one hateful deed, or rumor or paycheck from joining the casts of tens if not hundreds of thousands who are the ones we know as homeless.
Kimball R Lewis
I was southbound on Interstate 10 approaching the northern suburbs of Tucson. The western sky was ablaze in the red hue of another spectacular Arizona sunset. I had been to the Sam's Club in Tucson and bought food for 35 ranch hands. I was heading for the White Stallion Ranch and was burning daylight.
Before I had come to this part of Arizona, I had been the CEO and COO of two of the nation's most progressive animal welfare and protection organizations. I had hit the wall, I was burned out. Having worked months on end without a day off and seeing any and everything a person can do to their pet and each other, I needed a break. Growing up a working cowboy and ranch raised, I found my hiatus at the White Stallion Ranch.
Caught up in a notion of Christmas, I was preparing some cowboy poetry for a gathering where I was to recite. As I began my decent onto the Cortaro Farms Road exit, I saw him standing there. He was a wrinkled man with tattered clothes and a cardboard sign that read "Homeless Veteran, Hungry, Need Work". I made some crack under my breath about him getting a job or spending the money on booze. But I also noted that standing next to this "bum" was a beautiful yellow lab. The dog had a vest on which I recognized as belonging to a service dog.
Now, as I drove past that old man with his dog, something jarred my senses. I made a U-turn and pulled up near the off ramp. As it turned out, the old man had lost his hearing and Charlie was his hearing dog. We introduced ourselves. Vincent, the old man, could read lips well enough and could speak enough to tell me a fascinating story. He had served our country in World War II and suffered disabling injuries. But it was mental illness or at least a state of mental decline that found Vincent standing here in the desert with Charlie this Christmas season of 1995.
Vincent could have been any of our fathers, or uncles, or a brother but one thing was for sure, he was a hero, now cast away and relegated to the concrete world of this interstate off ramp, a sad empire of cold engineering. I walked back to my truck and withdrew a bag of dog food. I found Vincent was a decent old man who, like millions of Americans, is only one paycheck away from being homeless. Unfortunately for him, that one paycheck failed to materialize and his home was the vastness of the Sonoran Desert. He explained it was here he felt safe. Two days later, I drove off the ranch and found Vincent in his "usual place". I had made him some home made cowboy salsa and some tortillas as well as a chicken still hot and wrapped in tin foil. I brought Charlie a box of dog treats and a new leash to replace the bailing twine that had been somehow fashioned into a lead.
I wish I could tell you that Vincent and Charlie are OK. I don't know how they are. After a period of time on the ranch, I was recruited to take the top post at Greenhill Humane Society, one of the leading animal welfare centers in the US. I moved to Oregon to answer my new calling and often wondered what became of that pair. But there is a reason for everything and my time with Vincent and Charlie taught me a valuable lesson about homeless people and their pets. I didn't know it but the opportunity to make a lasting and significant change for homeless people with companion animals was only around the next bend.
In Eugene, much like Tucson, you don't have to look far for the
disenfranchised of society. Homeless people with dogs in tow line the street corners
much the way they do in almost any city from here to Mexico. Unlike Vincent's dog,
Charlie, who was well groomed and kept, I began to take notice that many of the pets
belonging to homeless people are in ill health or subject to disease as the result
of not being vaccinated. There was a common feeling at our agency and among many
people that homeless people shouldn't have pets. I could hear the comments and remarks
all too often.
"Why should he have a pet if he can't even take care of himself?" Or, "How can that poor dog or cat live with him?" Or, "Someone should take their pets away!"
At the same time this was all happening, I was also hosting a radio talk show between 4:00 and 5:00 PM., the popular "drive time" The show could be heard by most anyone in Eugene, Roseburg, Salem and other places in Oregon. I decided one afternoon to produce a show on the topic of pets and homeless people. I asked callers for their opinions about homeless people and pets and when the phone lines were opened, we were inundated with calls. It was clear that there were a lot of strong feelings on the subject and I shared mine with the audience. I said that it was my belief that taking pets away from homeless individuals or families was not the answer. These people already own pets and taking the pet away is not the solution. Instead, I was determined to develop a program that would provide access to basic veterinary care and vaccinations for these animals.
During the coming weeks, my staff and I brainstormed and mapped out a plan. We would enlist the aid of veterinarians who would donate their time and set up a weekend clinic in a mutually convenient location. We would distribute flyers to homeless people with pets and rely on their network of communication to spread the word. The program needed a name that would be easy to market and remember. One night while having dinner with my Board President, Susan Hilton and Vice President Mary Blackburn, the name came to me. "We'll call it the HALO Program" I announced. They agreed. It was done. HALO, or, Helping Animals Living Outdoors would begin its inaugural service in the parking lot of a church in the Whitaker Neighborhood of Eugene, Oregon in April of 1999.
The week before I started the program, I received my first threat. A letter with no return address or signature blasted me for enabling the homeless to own and abuse pets. Similar calls and e-mails came in prompting me to make the HALO Program my only topic for the next radio broadcast. I knew in my heart what we were doing was right. How could anyone say otherwise? I found out that there were plenty that could.
Melody Mihevc, Miss Oregon 1999, who just happened to be my administrative assistant at work, also strongly supported the HALO Program. I asked her to co-host the show with me. As we opened the phone lines we were again flooded with calls, both pro and con. I asked people if the animals already belonging to the homeless had any choice or say in who their owners were. The answer of course is no. Should we deprive and animal of care, food, medical attention or other necessary services simply because his owner happens to be without a roof over his head? My answer is absolutely not. One caller suggested that we go out and round up all of the homeless people's pets.
"Sir, the homeless animal population in America is already many times greater than the homeless human population and yet you suggest we take the latter away from the first?"
He had no answer. Indeed, there is no magic formula or quick fix. Many homeless people see their pets as their only source of companionship -- and even sanity. Many homeless people will feed their pets before they themselves eat. No, the answer is not in seizing dogs from homeless owners so that we have more animals crowding our already over crowded shelter. The answer is making the community effort to effect a lasting, positive change for both the animal and the owner.
The HALO Program can be quickly set up anywhere there are veterinarians
and an animal welfare organization. This world of ours has enough woes. Only good
will come from fulfilling our mandate to aid our fellow man and animal. The
HALO Program is one local, do-able step in mending the fabric of a tearing society.
There are hundreds of thousands of human beings in America without a place to sleep tonight; men, women, children, and there are millions of homeless pets on our streets as evidenced by the seven million dogs and cats euthanized last year in our country. There is no greater deed we can do than to assuage the tears of hunger, cold and loneliness for both through the outreach of human warmth and understanding.
Be a torch for change in your community. Give a bag of pet food to the homeless person standing on the side of the road with their pet. Help push for programs that will make a change and don't be discouraged. Sure, there will always be those who can yell "get a job" from their car window but the truth is, we are all in this together and homelessness is not going to fix itself. Nor will the companion animals who are owned by the homeless be able to fix their problems. Only a loving and supportive community can reach to find solutions.
We cannot fix all of our societal ills with the sweep of our hand but we can chip away at the stones of indifference and inaction to the extent that they are broken into smaller pieces. I received extensive opposition and support for the HALO Program. In every instance, I remembered a disabled veteran and his service dog on the side of Interstate 10 near Tucson. I hope that Vincent knows --somehow -- what a change he effected in the hearts of so many with the HALO project that began that Christmas-tide day I met him and Charlie.