"There's a bit of magic in everything, and some loss to even things out." -Lou Reed

Friday, January 23, 2009

Where the Heart Is

I have lived in some big cities-San Francisco, Atlanta, Washington DC- and have seen the homeless problem up close and personal in all these places, plus in the even smaller cities and towns I have lived in. When I was younger, I shook my head at these people who had obviously made the "wrong choices" or were living a life fueled by drugs and alcohol. As I got older, I realized the reality is not that easy to explain.

I think the first big slap of understanding came to me when I was in college in Greensboro, NC, during my sophomore year. I volunteered a little bit with a women's shelter and a soup kitchen. At the soup kitchen, we gave out meals at designated times of the day, and every day I was there, I saw the same man coming in, and all I could think when watching him was how ashamed he looked the entire time. I would always try to make eye contact with him, but he would look down and walk to sit alone.

Finally one day, after he had sat down, I walked over to his table and asked if I could sit with him. He gestured an "ok" without looking at me. I introduced myself, and somehow got him talking.

He ended up telling me his story, how he ended up homeless. He had been a college professor, had a beautiful family, a wife and two kids. He had the perfect life. Then, one night, when he was driving, they were in a car accident. He was the only survivor.

He said he hung on for awhile, but then became a serious alcoholic, and lost everything. People tried to help, and he had alienated everyone and drifted around, too embarrassed to be seen by people he knew. He had tried to straighten up, but always failed. He was crying telling me all this, and it had been 4 years since the accident. I cried with him.

I learned in that moment, though, that the people sitting on the sidewalks, in the alleys asking for handouts, are probably never what we assume. The man that I spoke with was so tortured with guilt for surviving I think, and just so sad and lost, that he lost his grip on life. It made me look at every homeless person I ever saw again so differently. That person is someone's son or daughter, someone's sister or brother, someone's mother or father. Who knows what got them there?

Sometimes you see a homeless person with a pet, most times a dog. I hear people talking after they walk by about how "awful" that is, and if they can't take care of themselves, why would they drag an animal into that. I have actually watched people criticize homeless people for this.

I think it makes them still feel human in some way. I know that they need love, and dogs especially love you unconditionally. I know it is hard to understand, and I have battled a little with my opinion on this at times, too. But I cannot imagine being without a home, without any human contact, and just the need to feel some companionship.

Right now, I know some people have even scratched their heads over my choice to bring a dog into my life when financially things aren't great, and a lot of things are just crazy for me. But the joy that my dog has brought to me is immeasurable.

So, to the real purpose of this post--a Belgian homeless shelter opened its doors to homeless people with dogs. The reason? Many of the homeless would not come inside from the freezing temperatures and leave their dogs behind.

I remember during Katrina, I was so angry that many animals were left behind because rescue teams couldn't take them. I understand (or try to) that they have to concentrate on human life rescues, but to leave these animals to starve or die...I was so distraught. There were some who refused to leave and be rescued for that very reason. I am not sure if people were properly warned beforehand regarding their animals, but considering the whole mess that our administration made of that at the time, I doubt it.

The Belgian shelter says it hopes other shelters will follow suit. I do believe that a homeless person's first priority should be getting back on their feet, getting back into society. But for some people, hope seems so far away, and a little companionship may seem like a saving grace.

Belgian homeless shelter opens doors to dogs

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A shelter in the Belgian city of Liege has opened its doors to dogs this winter to persuade their homeless owners to come in from the freezing cold.
The city's social welfare agency has agreed to house about eight homeless people with their pets at a local soccer club when it is freezing outside.
Michel Faway, secretary-general of the agency, said the programme started because many homeless people refused to come inside without their dogs no matter how cold it got.
"They have to come to the night shelter in Liege first as we obviously can't have 40 of them," he said. "They are then transported by bus to the space."
The project has been a success. All eight beds have been filled on the nights when the service was offered.
Faway hopes to see the scheme expand to other cities.

(Reporting by Sarah Luehrs, Antonia van de Velde; Editing by Nick Vinocur)

article courtesy of Reuters, photo courtesy http://www.petsofhomeless.com/


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