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 U.S. 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 Cotton, the 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 grief. “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 clients to one of several resources in the area that donate pet food, including the Haywood Street Congregation.
On Code Purple nights, when the temperature is at or below freezing, Tucker and Star opt to sleep in the emergency shelter at Trinity United Methodist Church, 587 Haywood Road, West Asheville. It’s the only Code Purple facility that takes people and their pets.
Trinity has had only three dogs since the shelter began operating in November, says Melanie Robertson, director of family ministries, noting that two of them, including Star, were service animals. Another guest brought a cat and a rabbit.
Trinity requires animals in the shelter to be leashed or crated at all times, and volunteers have donated a half-dozen crates of various sizes. Nonetheless, says Robertson, shelter volunteers let Star sleep on the floor beside Tucker’s mattress due to his health issues.
A shelter’s policy concerning pets can depend on its insurance, says Micheal Woods, executive director of the Western Carolina Rescue Ministries. The nonprofit operates a 140-bed facility in Asheville, he reports.
The two largest companies that insure homeless shelters both exclude pets, says Woods. “If something happens — say that pet bites someone — there’s no liability coverage for the organization. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have an affinity for animals, but at the same time, we have to be extremely careful. … To me, it’s a liability issue about how to keep people safe.”
Although his organization can’t allow pets inside, it does distribute five or six zip-close bags of dog food a day to anyone who requests it.
The Rev. Nancy Dixon Walton, who is Trinity’s pastor, says that overnight guests are informed about behavior expectations when they check in. “If an animal damages property or shows signs of being dangerous, the owner is asked to remove the animal from the premises immediately,” she explains.
Even when an owner and pet can’t stay together, there may be options for keeping them both safe.
Since 2005, the Humane Society’s AMG program has temporarily boarded homeless people’s cats and dogs in its shelter for up to 30 days when space is available. The program is named for former Asheville resident Anna Marie Goodman. Homeless at the time and told she couldn’t bring her dog with her into a shelter, “She chose to stay in her car with her dog instead of leaving him outside, and both she and her dog died that night,” Chief Operations Officer Lisa Johns explains.
Cats and small or medium-sized dogs are kept in kennels; there are runs for bigger dogs. The program, notes Johns, serves a range of people, including those who are “experiencing homelessness, are in the hospital or a medical rehab facility unexpectedly, or are a victim of domestic violence.”
The latter group accounts for 60% of the organization’s requests for emergency boarding, says Cotton, but during the pandemic the Humane Society’s shelter has been filled to capacity with animals awaiting adoption, leaving no room for homeless people’s pets. He adds that while there’s no local shelter for survivors of domestic violence that accepts pets, the Humane Society can sometimes pay for temporary off-site boarding.
Veterinary care for all
Animals, like humans, need health care, and The Street Dog Coalition of Asheville can help. The group’s quarterly pop-up clinics provide free, basic care for dogs and cats whose owners can’t afford to pay.
Veterinarian Cat Ashe launched the national organization’s Asheville chapter in September 2020. After moving here from Knoxville, Tenn. in 2013, she was surprised at the size and visibility of the local homeless population. “It was new to me to see this many people, especially with pets,” she recalls.
Most of the clinics have been held on the grounds of the Haywood Street Congregation, 297 Haywood St., Asheville. To date, the local chapter has provided care for 74 dogs and 14 cats, says Katrina Weschler, director of operations for the Fort Collins, Colo.-based nonprofit.
Clients typically bring mixed-breed dogs, especially pit bull mixes and Chihuahuas, says Ashe. Cats are also often mixed breeds. The national umbrella organization supplies the local program with heartworm medication, flea and tick medication and annual vaccines such as rabies, bordetella, distemper and parvovirus for dogs, as well as rabies and feline leukemia vaccines for cats.
“Mostly we see parasite infections from not being regularly dewormed or not being kept on preventatives for roundworms or hookworms,” Ashe explains. “We see a fair amount of skin, ear and eye infections for the same reasons,” she continues, noting that animals with fleas can keep scratching themselves until the ruptured skin becomes infected. The organization isn’t currently equipped to treat serious ailments such as broken bones, but “We are going to try to start fundraising to help people get emergency care for their pets,” Ashe reports.
The coalition isn’t able to spay and neuter pets, either, but the ASPCA Spay/Neuter Alliance provides low-cost local services, and some financial assistance may be available.
If animals need care in between the coalition’s scheduled clinics, the Rev. Scott Rogers, executive director of the Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry, says most local animal hospitals will see pets at no charge if his organization calls them.
Home sweet home
Woods says that Western Carolina Rescue Ministries has considered building a kennel to house shelter residents’ pets, but it doesn’t have sufficient space. And in any case, he maintains, local animal adoption groups like Brother Wolf and the Humane Society “are the experts” in providing that kind of care.
Still, several people who work with the local homeless population say that facilities for clients’ pets need to be part of the equation.
Homeward Bound recently purchased the former Days Inn on Tunnel Road and plans to convert it into permanent supportive housing that would accept clients with pets, Kivett-Kimbro reports.
And Cantrell of BeLoved Asheville says that accommodating pets is “a wonderful thing for folks to consider” as additional shelter space is developed. “It doesn’t surprise me that [a pet] becomes a pillar of lots of people’s support systems,” she points out. “Making that possible in the shelter system makes a lot of sense.”
Meanwhile, Randy Tucker and Star are currently seeking housing. A peer support specialist at the Mountain Area Health Education Center is helping Tucker navigate the bureaucratic hurdles.
In the interim, the pair can often be spotted during trips to the pharmacy, Walmart or the French Broad River Dog Park for daily playtime. “She goes everywhere with me,” says Tucker, adding, “I think she’s pretty happy.”