Help for local homeless people’s pets

Randy Tucker has a shadow, and her name is Star.

With oversized ears and big paws that bear witness to her youth, the 3-year-old German shepherd mix was adopted three months ago from the Asheville Humane Society, which found her in mid-September, roaming as a stray in the Lees Creek area . Star now accompanies Tucker on his jaunts around town, and he says she’s being trained to use her superior sense of smell to alert him when his blood sugar is low.

Star is also learning basic dog manners. “When I first got her, she didn’t know how to walk, she didn’t know how to do nothing — she was a basket case,” Tucker remembers with a chuckle. “The report [from the shelter] said that she was afraid of other dogs; she was afraid of the people that came in.”

With Tucker’s instruction, Star now knows several commands and is friendly toward strangers. She’ll even roll onto her back to get a belly rub from a reporter.

Tucker is one of hundreds of people in Asheville with no fixed address. He and Star live in his van, which has a mattress for him and a large crate in the back for her. It’s unknown how many among the local homeless population have pets. The city’s annual point-in-time count collects only the demographic data required by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, explains Brian Huskey, a community development analyst with the city. According to the most recent figures available, 527 people were experiencing homelessness as of January 2021. The 2022 numbers are expected later this year.

And though estimates vary, Adam Cottonthe Humane Society’s director of community solutions, says that in his organization’s experience, about 10% of homeless folks have pets.

Despite a lack of hard data, local experts say that COVID-19 has only made matters worse. “It was significant for me in the pandemic that we’re seeing whole families with their pets living in cars,” notes the Rev. Amy Cantrell, co-director of BeLoved Asheville. The nonprofit works on behalf of homeless folks.

The only close connection left

Homeless people have pets for the same reasons everyone else does: love, companionship, safety, emotional support. But for those experiencing a chaotic period in their lives, the human/animal bond may be even more crucial.

People often become homeless in the midst of other traumas, such as domestic violence, substance abuse or other medical issues. At such a time, surrendering a much-loved pet can be an additional source of grievance. “I’ve met people who’ve lost a wife or a husband … and the pet is the only thing that’s left from the family unit,” Cantrell explains.

“For a lot of folks who’ve had significant long-term mental health concerns and struggles in their life, I’ve often seen a pet be one of the biggest resources for helping that person maintain their mental health,” says Jerry Kivett-Kimbro of the Asheville-based nonprofit Homeward Bound. Having a pet, he points out, “can create stability in a life that is often surrounded by instability. The responsibility and structure that come with caring for a pet can be helpful in preparing for housing.”

For homeless clients who have a pet, says Kivett-Kimbro, the organization’s director of rapid rehousing, the animal’s well-being is usually “their No. 1 priority.” He directs those customers to one of several resources in the area that donate pet food, including the Haywood Street Congregation.