In the shelter of animals
For those without homes, pets provide comfort, community and a reason to care
Everywhere she goes, Jennifer McSherry carries a beige pet carrier.
Inside, McSherry’s tuxedo cat, Bella, goes along for the ride.
In the spring, McSherry, 48, and her fiancé, Derek Hutchinson, 40, were forced to leave their Kent apartment when the rent went up $50. Bringing Bella with them, they slept in the alley behind Queen Anne Liquor and Wine, under the Ballard Bridge and, most recently, in the Roy Street Shelter in South Lake Union.
Outreach workers met McSherry and Hutchinson under the Ballard Bridge and offered them space at the shelter.
The couple agreed, under one condition: “If you take one of us, you’ve got to take us all,” McSherry said. “And that includes Bella.”
On a recent Tuesday morning, McSherry sold copies of Real Change at Northwest Market Street and 22nd Avenue Northwest in Ballard while Bella, secure in her harness, nuzzled into a pile of blue blankets.
Some customers petted Bella, but McSherry said many passersby criticized her for keeping the cat while being homeless.
Once, a woman offered to adopt Bella from McSherry and bring her indoors.
McSherry refused the woman’s offer of money. She couldn’t put a price on her cat.
“She’s our baby,” McSherry said. “She means everything to us.”
McSherry said she puts Bella before everything else.
In return, she gets unconditional love and inspiration.
“She’s our reason for getting up in the morning and selling the papers,” she said.
Leslie Irvine, a University of Colorado sociology professor and author of “My Dog Always Eats First: Homeless People and Their Animals,” said animals provide a unique relationship for homeless people, who are often ignored by society.
“To feel loved and needed by another being just the way you are really goes a long way when you’re in a situation when society has completely devalued you,” Irvine said.
When she started her research, Irvine assumed that the animals went hungry, but found that homeless people didn’t need the help she offered.
“They had more food than they could carry,” Irvine said. “I thought I was going to be this big hero and give out this pet food, but they already had plenty.”
She discovered that in many cases, homeless people are more attentive to their pets.
“Having a home doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good animal caretaker,” Irvine said.
Housed dogs often sit for hours at home by themselves. Homeless people have their pets with them all day.
“They get 24-7 attention, exercise and fresh air,” Irvine said.
Kara Main-Hester, spokesperson for The Seattle Animal Shelter, said the organization often gets calls from people worried by the sight of an animal with a homeless person. The Seattle Animal Shelter sends officers to check on every call, she said, but often finds the animals are as well-cared for as those that live in homes.
It’s just that they’re out in the open.
“When individuals are homeless, they are much more visible with their animals,” she said. “A dog in a backyard with a fence is harder to see.”
McSherry said she and Hutchinson always have bags of cat food nearby, and keep Bella’s carrier lined with blankets to keep her warm. Friends and Real Change customers help them provide for her.
“She constantly has a bowl of food,” she said.
McSherry has been homeless before, and said she spent most of her time sitting in a library. But this time, with Bella, she’s motivated to sell papers and find housing.
“She gives us a reason to keep going and trying,” McSherry said. “She’s the reason that we bother anymore, that we stay away from drugs. She’s the reason we stay sober.”
Lakesha Johnson, 37, said she had the same experience when she was homeless with Roxy, a Jack Russell Terrier.
Johnson volunteers at the Doney Memorial Pet Clinic, a veterinary clinic at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission for homeless and low-income people.
She was homeless in 2008 and trying to kick a heroin habit.
She credits Roxy for helping her get sober.
“When homeless people get pets, it shows them they really got something to live for,” Johnson said.
Roxy, she said, could tell when she was on drugs.
“They know the difference,” Johnson said, “because they know the real you.”
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