Overlooked in Fort Collins: The homeless pet predicament

Geoff Huebner

There are many reasons why one might choose to get a pet – companionship, service or therapy, maybe even protection.

When the owner of that pet is living on the streets, though, those reasons become amplified.

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The pet might be the only companion the owner can trust. Likewise, the service, therapy and protection the animal provides could be crucial to every day survival.

There is no question that homeless people can benefit greatly from having a pet with them, but keeping a pet on the streets can be difficult and sometimes even dangerous for the animals.

This leads some people to question whether or not a person should really keep a pet in a homeless situation.

“I can see both sides of it, where someone who’s homeless and maybe has whatever kind of issue, a pet might help with… (providing) an added layer of stability and I can see that being helpful,” District One officer Nick Rogers said “… the flipside of that is there are some real difficulties with living on the streets, even when you’re staying in shelters because shelters don’t take pets, so that could be a real challenge.”

As a District One officer, Rogers comes face-to-face with the homeless of Fort Collins every day on the job. He knows how big of an obstacle this can be for the homeless and for the pets that are not allowed in and have to sleep in the cold.

One man who knows this obstacle all too well is Zach, a member of the Fort Collins homeless community, and his dog, Sissy Lala.

Sissy lala, a homeless pet in the Fort Collins area. Photo courtesy of Haleigh McGill
Sissy lala, a homeless pet in the Fort Collins area.
Photo courtesy of Haleigh McGill

“We have nowhere else to go,” Zach said. “The missions and Catholic charities won’t let us in because we have Sissy Lala, so where are we supposed to go exactly?”

It seems as if shelters were to allow pets a big part of the problem would be solved, unfortunately it’s just not that simple.

“It’s definitely one of the challenges that we face,” community and events specialist for the Fort Collins Rescue Mission, Hannah Baltz-Smith said. “… Unless they have a service animal, unfortunately we cannot provide shelter for individuals with their pets and that’s simply because we don’t have the space.”

Even if the pet is a service animal, options for where the pet can stay in the shelter are limited.

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Another member of the Fort Collins homeless community, Twyla, chooses not to stay in the shelter because of the pet policies.

“My husband took Ratchet for the winter so I could go into the shelter,” she said. “The one shelter, the Fort Collins Rescue Mission, said with him being a service dog if he goes to stay the night there he has to be put in a kennel outside… then you’re killing the service part of it, uh, that’s not going to happen.”

Ratchet is a homeless pet in the Fort Collins area, his owner is Twyla. Photo courtesy of Geoff Huebner
Ratchet is a homeless pet in the Fort Collins area, his owner is Twyla. (Photo courtesy of Geoff Huebner.)

Even with the shelter not having room for animals, there are homeless people in Fort Collins — like Zach and Twyla — with pets who have been able to survive on the streets for years.

The homeless population in Fort Collins is like a community; for the most part people know one another. In some cases, this resourceful community is able to work out a system that allows those with pets to stay in the shelter for a night by having their pets stay with another trusted homeless pet owner outside of the shelter.

“I guess those individuals that do have pets have a network system amongst themselves where they’re actually going to trade off their pets,” Baltz-Smith said. “So if there is an opportunity for someone to let their pet stay with another individual, they can seek shelter with us then.”

Despite the Fort Collins Rescue Mission not being able to provide shelter for the homeless with pets, there are still valuable resources in the Fort Collins area for them.

One of these resources is the 4 Paws Pet Pantry, founded in 2009 by April Castillon, the Pantry’s president. Since opening, the Pantry has helped provide resources for roughly 900 to 1,200 dogs in the Fort Collins area.

“Our mission here at 4 Paw Pantry is to bridge the gap between shelter and home,” Castillon said. “Everyone suffers through hard times and we would like to be able to keep pets in the home whether it’s a short term emergency that’s occurred or if its something in long term with our elderly.”

The Pantry has also served 3.6 million pounds of food since operations began.

“On a 2 week basis we could get anywhere from fifteen thousand to twenty-five thousand pounds of food,” Castillon said.

But their services do not stop at just shelter or providing food. The Pantry will do anything within its power to help pets on the streets. Castillon has even provided free baths out of her Spa 4 Paws business that shares a roof with the Pantry.

“Their dog was suffering from some kind of a skin allergy … so we donated baths for that dog for awhile, I think we did three of them … in a three-month period that dog flipped around, became healthy, grew hair back and in the mean time they got back on their feet,” Castillon said.

The Sister Mary Alice Murphy Center for Hope is another place in Fort Collins looking to do everything it can for those in need.

“We do have dog food, cat food, sometimes there’s leashes and things like that, different supplies for animals,” said Kim Larsen, the Murphy Center’s manager. “… If somebody brings to us a tough situation, maybe they do have a pet and they need shelter, then we try to advocate and help them make a plan.”

Resources like the 4 Paws Pet Pantry, The Murphy Center and others like them make survival with pets on the streets possible.

Even with resources like these, there are still homeless people in Fort Collins who could have a pet but choose not to because they see it as unfair to the animal.

One of these people is Jackson Wallace, better known as Jazz around the community. Jazz is 53 years old and has been homeless since he was just 11.

“You can’t afford yourself, how are you going to afford a dog,” Jazz asks.

While Jazz offers a legitimate opinion, the bottom line seems to be that if a homeless person needs an animal for service on the streets or has a pet and is cast into a homeless situation – they have the right to keep their pets and the resources in Fort Collins make that and success stories like these possible.

“He had a flat bed trailer that he built a dog pin on and put a big dog house on it,” Castillon said. “Him and his wife lived out of the truck for three months … he came once a week to get dog food and that was probably one of the most rewarding things because we helped the whole family out.”

Collegian Features reporter Geoff Huebner can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter at Huebnermedia93.