Seattlites love their four-legged companions. An oft-touted statistic claims Seattlites have more dogs than kids, according to The Seattle Times. And they have even more cats. With the trend of parents of furry kids outnumbering parents of human kids, one might come to the conclusion that everyone is getting along and supporting one another. But that’s not always the case. When pet owners are homeless, it comes with an additional stigma.
“I’ve heard a lot of this line, ‘Oh, if you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of an animal,’” Gemina Garland-Lewis said. “People just have total misconceptions about what’s going on with these animals in people’s lives.”
Garland-Lewis is a documentary photographer and research coordinator at the University of Washington’s Center for One Health Research. It’s where scientists study the relationship between human, animal and environmental health issues.
“A lot of times that might be something like what diseases can be transmitted between people and animals,” Garland-Lewis said. “One thing the director of the center really cares about is human-animal bond issues and the role that having animals can play in our lives both mentally and physically.”
The center is currently examining how best to create a clinic where homeless people can receive medical treatment and veterinary care for their pets all in one location. Garland-Lewis is using her photography to help bring the clinic to life. Garland-Lewis said her passion lies in combining visual storytelling with nontraditional avenues such as academia. Since the summer of 2015, she’s been listening to the stories of people who are homeless and photographing them with their pets. People assume homeless pet owners don’t feed or wash their pets or take them for regular vet check-ups.
“You’re not going to change people’s bias and stigma with stigma. If we find out how many people are homeless with a pet in Seattle, that’s helpful for a lot of other reasons. That’s helpful for a lot of social work and clinical care and vet care,” Garland-Lewis said. “But that’s not going to change anybody’s heart or mind about them and the situation that’s going on and providing new mechanisms for care for people and their animals.”
In talking to homeless pet owners, she’s witnessed the intense emotional bond between owner and pet that is beneficial to both parties. Dogs often keep women safe from violence, and it’s also a judgment-free relationship.
“What I heard from a lot of folks was this is the only friend I know that will always be there,” Garland-Lewis said. “It’s the only thing that doesn’t care if I’m showered right now or why I ended up on the street.”
Garland-Lewis’ work is the start of a dialogue and a way to connect communities who don’t always recognize their similarities. She hosted an event at Town Hall Seattle in December titled “Everything to Me” to share her work. Penny Lane Pannek and her dog Déjà, a pit bull-Shiba Inu mix, accompanied Garland-Lewis on stage for the talk. Town Hall relaxed their no pets rule specifically for the event.
“She said as soon as she saw her dog, they both looked at each other like, ‘Where you been all this time?’ It felt like déjà vu when she found her so that’s where her name comes from,” Garland-Lewis said about Penny Lane and Déjà. When Garland-Lewis first met Pannek, she lived in the RV safe lot in Ballard but she’s now living in South Park.
Pannek’s story counters the assumptions many housed people make about homeless people with pets: that the animals don’t receive adequate care. Garland-Lewis said it’s the opposite. Many often place the animal’s needs before their own.
“I think it’s also really important for people to understand these pets are getting their shots. They’re getting food even when people themselves aren’t getting food,” Garland-Lewis said. “Whether or not you can take care of an animal is not dependent on your housing status.”
Often when we step out of our comfort zones, reach out to others and listen to their stories, it helps broaden our horizons. Garland-Lewis is proof of that. After spending hours with about a dozen people, she said she’s gained a new perspective on her personal relationships — specifically a bout of anxiety her mother experienced years ago.
“I’ve always been pretty sure our cat is the reason she lived through that,” Garland-Lewis said. “Going through this experience and hearing from all of these people gave me a better depth of understanding to sort of see what she must’ve been going through.”
In her youth Garland-Lewis also experienced homelessness for a few months. Thanks to the support of others, she and her mother were able to find a place to stay during the brief period. She realizes the situation could’ve been much worse. The project helped her understand how easy it is to fall through the cracks in this country.
“Everyone I talked to, someone in their family died or somebody got sick or they lost their job or they were discharged from the military and couldn’t find anything afterward,” Garland-Lewis said. “Everything is not as protected as you think it is.”
No matter the circumstances in your life the desire for pet companionship isn’t limited to those with homes and it doesn’t disappear when you become homeless.