CORVALLIS — Bob Brokaw has spent several nights in a dumpster just to avoid the rain and keep warm.
The 57-year-old homeless man knows there is a warm bed and food available between November and March at the Men’s Cold Weather Shelter in Corvallis. But going there would mean having to give up his best friend and the only one who has stuck by him through the worst years of his life — his dog Lucas.
Brokaw and the border collie have been inseparable for more than eight years. Wherever Brokaw goes, Lucas follows. But animals are not allowed into the cold weather shelters unless they are service animals. And Brokaw isn’t going anywhere without Lucas.
“I’m not getting rid of my dog to go indoors. I’ll just bundle up,” Brokaw said. “That’s a hard way to wake up. But I’m not going to leave him.”
Every additional dollar Brokaw receives, whether from collecting cans and bottles or from charity, goes to feeding Lucas.
“He eats what I eat and every time I have something extra, he gets it,” Brokaw said. “I’d rather have him be healthy. He’s better than me. He deserves it more.”
Kathleen Harrington, who has been homeless for 12 years, said she rides around Corvallis every day looking for a place where she and her longhaired Dachsund, Happy, will be welcome — or at least free from harassment.
“It’s scary sleeping out in the open and being a girl all by yourself,” Harrington said. “I sleep underneath the shelters at Avery Park from time to time. And there are no options for homeless people with pets.”
Brokaw and Harrington are two of the estimated 100 homeless people living with pets in Benton County. The National Coalition on Homelessness estimates that of the 3.5 million Americans who are homeless, nearly 10 percent own dogs or cats. Because most of the pets do not qualify as service or companion animals, many homeless people who have pets in Benton County have to choose whether to stay with their pets in the rain and cold, or stay warm and dry and possibly lose them forever.
Lucas suffered from a persistent case of fleas for several months in 2014, Brokaw said, because he couldn’t afford flea medication and other preventative care. Like their humans, living outdoors leaves the animals susceptible to numerous health problems.
Occupy Corvallis and Oregon State University’s Shelter Medicine Club offers free exams, vaccinations and preventative care for homeless animals twice each year as part of the “Street Dawgs and Cats Care Fair.” The groups helped nearly 40 homeless pets receive care in October, and the next fair is scheduled for May.
“The homeless are generally very good pet owners but taking care of pets can cost a lot of money. You’d never guess there were so many animals on the streets because they keep such good care of them,” fair organizer Stephanie Hampton said previously. “Many people we work with equate Heartland with taking their animal to jail. I know people who have animals who will not go to the shelter because they’d have to give the animals up.”
Emily James, development director at Heartland Humane Society, said the organization recognizes there is a need for stable preventative care and temporary housing options in Corvallis, but space limitations and legal issues prevent Heartland from providing care to pets that the organization does not own.
“I would be performing veterinary care without a license (if the animals are not ours),” James said. “In those cases, people have the option to sign their animals over to us, and in those cases we’ll do what we can. But we understand it’s difficult for people to give up their pets.”
Heartland does offer a pet food bank for homeless pet owners to receive free food twice a month, Heartland representatives said in an email. The organization also provides the Emergency and Safe Housing Program, which is available to people seeking shelter at any area inclement weather or other type of shelter. But several homeless in Corvallis said giving up their pets, even temporarily, would be too much of a risk and they would rather not be separated.
Heartland representatives are scheduled to meet with a consultant this month to discuss the lack of low/no-cost assistance to local pet owners, and whether onsite or mobile options would be most feasible, James said in an email.
“We’re looking to restructure our on-site services or provide mobile services to help fulfill that need. We’re looking at doing it as soon as we can,” she said, noting that it is unlikely the care will be offered within the next year. “There are no options for that locally for people in Benton County. We feel like that’s our role and we really want to figure out a way we can do it. We need to find a solution that allows us to be compliant with the law and ideally provide limited veterinary services full time.”
Heartland also is scheduled to host its “Snip & Spay” low-cost cat spay and neuter event April 11. James also noted, in an email Wednesday, that the shelter offers the homeless other services as well:
“Heartland … currently offers services to the homeless population, including a pet food bank for pet owners to receive free food twice a month, as well as the Emergency and Safe Housing Program which is available to people seeking shelter at any area inclement weather or other type of shelter. Through this program, Heartland will provide up to 30 days board and basic medical care to pets of clients staying in a shelter.”
“We haven’t figured out if we’ll be able to do a full vaccination clinic yet,” James said. “But we recognize there is a huge need, so we’re going to try to include it.”
Harrington hopes that more affordable veterinary options become available soon.
“It’s very important because we can’t afford to do the shots and (our pets) need them,” she said. “When I got Happy, I found out he had a heart murmur and his previous owners didn’t want to pay the vet bills. So far, he’s been OK, but I worry about him every day. And I worry if something happens that I won’t be able to afford it.”
The Corvallis Daytime Drop-In Center’s Advocates for Pets of Homeless People provide one-on-one service assistance to homeless pets. Organizers have previously provided assistance in getting animals certified as service or companion animals, helped pet owners find low-cost veterinary care and provided connections to various charity organizations and programs around Corvallis. But funding for the program itself is severely limited, said co-coordinator Peter Ewald.
“It’s not a strong program because we don’t have the funds or the volunteers we need to do it,” Ewald said. “But when people have the needs come in to the drop-in center, we help them out to the point we can. We’re not able to do everything they need, but we do everything we can.”
To volunteer or donate to the program, residents can contact Ewald at 541-602-1792.