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News / Clark County News

In Clark County, pets lifeline for owners experiencing homelessness

Unsheltered people put their animals’ welfare ahead of their own

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter
Published: May 9, 2023, 6:06am
5 Photos
Katie Vongthongthip, left, and her fiancee, Chance Newbill, play with their dog, Nova Scotia, at the Hope Village Safe Stay on Fourth Plain Boulevard. Before moving to Hope Village, the couple lived in a van for five years.
Katie Vongthongthip, left, and her fiancee, Chance Newbill, play with their dog, Nova Scotia, at the Hope Village Safe Stay on Fourth Plain Boulevard. Before moving to Hope Village, the couple lived in a van for five years. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

A pack of three feral cats, a mother and two kittens, wandered into The Swamp encampment last year looking for food.

Polly Todd, the self-proclaimed mother of the camp, started to take care of them, putting out water and food.

The feline family stayed at the camp for about three days. Until one morning, Todd woke up and the mother and one of the babies were gone — leaving behind a kitten only a couple of months old.

“They probably left him behind because he can be sort of a handful,” said Todd with a smile.

She named him Joey.

It took the kitten a little while to warm up to Todd, initially not letting her touch him but occasionally side-sweeping her ankle. Then one day, she could finally pick him up.

“We spent a lot of time in front of the fireplace by my tent together, he would curl up in my lap and we would just cuddle,” said Todd.

Todd has experienced homelessness off and on for years. Recently, she moved into The Outpost, the city’s first Safe Stay Community. Joey by her side.

“He is my baby boy. He’s so loving, and I love taking care of him,” she said. “Without him, I probably wouldn’t have made it out there.”

Todd’s statement rings true for many pet owners. Pets offer companionship and unconditional love. And for people experiencing homelessness, animals can serve as a lifeline.

“Pet ownership should not be restricted to someone’s socioeconomic status. Pet ownership brings so many benefits, not just for the individual, but for the community,” said Laura Jean Skiles, community solutions manager for the Humane Society for Southwest Washington.

‘Give everything up’ for pets

In April, balmy sunbeams blanketed Chance Newbill and Katie Vongthongthip as they watched their dog, Nova Scotia, zoom around the smallish pen designated for animals to play in at Vancouver’s second Safe Stay, Hope Village.

The pit bull and husky mix hopped around the small mulch-coated confine before halting in her tracks abruptly, wood pellets skipping off the ground around her paws. The dog stared intensely behind a nearby pallet home, eyes unblinking.

“She’s seen some rabbits there before,” said Newbill with a huge smile. “I don’t think she would ever hurt any of them, but she’s curious.”

For more than five years, Newbill and Vongthongthip called their van home. They bought Nova Scotia from a friend last fall. Now the family of three resides in a pallet shelter home in Hope Village.

The first week after they got her, the then-puppy started to have intense stomach pain. The couple were at odds; this was their first pet.

“I was so worried. I didn’t have money to pay for anything. I just wanted to take care of her, and it was so scary the thought of her being in pain or losing her because I didn’t have the resources,” said Vongthongthip. “I would give everything up for her.”

The couple used their last $40 to pay for a veterinarian check-up.

“We would put food in her mouth before our mouths,” said Newbill. “We would do anything for her. When people first see a homeless person with a dog, they say ‘poor dog’ but what they don’t know is that most owners are doing their best and would give up their last money or water bottle or food for that dog.”

Pets, people not ‘siloed’

Various agencies across Clark County work to support people experiencing homelessness and their pets. One prominent organization is the Humane Society for Southwest Washington.

A few weeks ago, a man walked into the Humane Society, ready to surrender his dog. He was emotional at the thought of being separated from his pet after seven years of companionship, but he was experiencing financial turmoil, recounted Skiles. But staff at the animal nonprofit were able to offer him a solution. The dog was placed in its safe haven program, temporarily housing animals when owners cannot care for them, such as financial difficulties, or are it they are healing from surgery or had a house fire.

The Humane Society provides services free of charge or at a very minimal price for lower-income people or those experiencing housing instability. The organization hosts Spay and Save every Tuesday and Wednesday, a low-cost service for low-income people. The group and its volunteers also do outreach to various encampments and housing organizations around Vancouver.

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“We want to create safer, healthier and happier communities. Pets and people do not exist separately. They are not siloed. They exist together. And if we want to help the animals, we have to help the people that love them,” said Skiles.

The Humane Society hopes to build a full-service veterinary clinic for the community.

Another critical person doing their part to help the unhoused with their animals is Dr. David Slocum, a retired veterinarian who spends his days reaching out to people experiencing housing instability. Slocum said in his work he can see the strong relationship between pets and unhoused populations.

“For a lot of these people, their dog or cat is their main friend in their life that they can depend on. These animals are not abused; they are very well taken care of,” he said.

Slocum offers vaccines, flea check-ups and sometimes counseling. Though he cannot do surgery or blood tests outside a clinic, he can refer them to someplace like the Humane Society.

“Sometimes people need blood tests, like that one over there,” he said, pointing to a black border collie and shepherd mix who was seeking pets from those around her. “We arranged her into a clinic for some lab tests. Now she’s on medication and dramatically better.”

The border collie/shepherd is named Odyssey. And for Martha, the dog with a midnight-black coat is a reason to keep going.

Martha bought Odyssey when the dog was a puppy. In January, Martha had a stroke. She became homeless shortly after being released from the hospital.

“She is my everything. She really gives me a reason to live,” she said.

Barriers and challenges

Multiple studies show that pets contribute to the emotional well-being of people experiencing homelessness, including better mental health, stability, obtaining sobriety, leaving domestic violence, and avoiding crime.

“I’ve heard some people in the community say, ‘Why don’t they just get rid of their pets?’ But pets are their families. I think particularly when you’re living outside, they may be the only connection you have with anything or anyone. They provide them companionship, a purpose,” said Jamie Spinelli, Vancouver’s homeless response coordinator.

But a barrier that pets can present on people experiencing homelessness is their ticket to housing. In Clark County, only a select amount of transitional or temporary housing options allow pets due to shelter policies. This can leave many in an impossible situation of choosing shelter or abandoning their animal.

“Pets are hugely important to people (outside). It’s one of the things that frequently keeps people from accessing things like shelter and even housing,” said Spinelli.

Andi Stewart and Will Davis lived in a two-seater truck with their dogs, Tasha and Coma, for years.

“People may steal from each other, but when it comes to pets, they take care of each other and them. Our pets are valued, and if somebody doesn’t have something for a pet, they get an abundance of stuff from other people,” said Stewart as Tasha, an ombre cream and light tan Chihuahua, sat on her lap, basking in the sun.

Stewart said pets encourage people to keep surviving because they need to care for their animals.

“They still have to eat, go to the bathroom, be warm — and so you keep struggling and trying because you know it’s not fair to them.”

Davis said people experiencing homelessness shouldn’t necessarily buy an animal because of the extra challenges they present with finding them food and other necessities. But for most, they already had their animals when they became unhoused — like himself and Stewart. He added that having a pet while experiencing homelessness is helpful, because the animal unbiasedly loves their owners — no matter their living situation.

“When you’re down and bummed, there is nothing (better) than your best friend coming up and cuddling you,” said Davis. “Because they don’t care about where they are. They just notice you.”

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.