It was a rainy Monday evening outside Peace for the Streets by Kids for the Streets (PSKS), a pet-friendly day shelter for homeless youth, but the pet owners who sought a dry place didn’t focus their attention on the dogs that played under the table and between the couches. Instead, close to 20 PSKS staff, teens and friends gathered around the shelter’s large table and examined pictures of pets taken with disposable cameras.
Over the course of the evening each participant selected one photo to be reprinted professionally and presented in an exhibition entitled “A Day in the Life: Photographs by Homeless Youth of their Animals.” The exhibition opened at PSKS on Capitol Hill on Nov. 8 and will be shown again on Saturday, Dec. 1 and Sunday, Dec. 2 at Mind Unwind Gallery in West Seattle.
The evening marked the second part of a photography workshop offered by the animal rights group Art for Animals’ Sake and its director David Walega, who has been leading monthly art workshops at PSKS since last spring. Walega decided to host workshops at PSKS to encourage homeless youth to explore their relationship with their pets through art. “I really wanted to concentrate on strengthening that bond between animal and person,” said Walega.
Most pet owners cherish the bond they share with an animal, but for those living in unstable financial situations or on the street, pets often play an especially significant role in providing stable companionship, a sense of responsibility and safety. While no official statistics on pet ownership in the homeless community have been published, the director of the National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that between 5 and 10 percent of the homeless population owns dogs or cats.
In the doghouse
Not only do homeless pet owners face the challenge of limited resources, they are also more likely to be cited for abuse and to find themselves at greater risk of having their animals taken away. Elaine Simons, director of PSKS, said sometimes when homeless youth leash their dogs outside before entering a building, people will complain the owner is mistreating the animal. “I see people that are housed tying their dogs up outside, so I think it’s really prejudiced when [the police] will target a homeless kid,” Simons said.
PSKS regular Cody, 23, remembered when he and his coonhound-boxer mix, Sampson, slept outside in the rain last year. They were approached by officers investigating a report of abuse. “Apparently us both being stuck in the rain meant I was abusing my animal because he should have been inside,” Cody said.
Kara Main-Hester, a manager at the Seattle Animal Shelter, said the shelter receives more complaints citing homeless pet owners than owners who have housing. “The reality is that the more often an animal is seen, the more likely we are to hear a complaint,” Main-Hester said. “And we have to respond to those complaints.”
When officers respond they are required to check for a license, which many homeless pet owners don’t have since the current pet licensing system is based on an owner’s address. Main-Hester said due to recent enforcement changes, officers can use their own discretion on whether or not to ticket owners without licenses. “We see many owners who are homeless who take fantastic care of their animals, and we don’t want to take those animals away from them,” she said.
To counter the abuse many homeless pet owners experience, Seattle Animal Shelter offered free pet licenses and tags to participants of the most recent Art for Animals’ Sake workshop.
’They mean something to you’
Local photographer and educator Ish Ishmael from the Photographic Center NW led both workshops, engaging participants in discussions of what made the images not only meaningful to them, but also compelling to viewers. Despite using disposable cameras, which meant the only artistic variables photographer contended with were flash and framing, Ishmael felt the resulting photos supported the adage “the best camera is the one you have.”
Art for Animals’ Sake director Walega said the photos the students took impressed him. “There’s a naiveté in a really nice way,” he said.
Nickelsville residents Diane Fillmore and her son, Trent, shot two rolls that contain lively images of Diane sparring with the community’s goats and numerous photos of her cats. In one photo, one of Trent’s cats licks the boy’s hair as he sleeps.
Workshop participant Mama Sara said the project allowed her to explore her relationship with her Staffordshire Terrier pit bull LC, or Little Cow. She said her dog helps her overcome agoraphobia, or anxiety over open spaces and uncontrollable social settings, and helps her meet people in her Columbia City community. “I have something to care about and care for besides myself, which makes me treat myself better,” Mama Sara said.
Fillmore from Nickelsville said she believes viewers at the exhibit will take home a lesson: “A sense that you can have animals even when you’re homeless, and they mean something to you.”