Photo Credit: Randy Schafer
David and Dorothy Gardener's Chihuaha, Malika, perches on folded-up bedding as she sits with her owners in downtown Athens.
If you walk down Clayton Street, specifically near the College Avenue intersection, you may have received a furry greeting from a little brown, scraggly pup. Usually a blur, due to near-constant wagging, this tiny dog, Malika, spends many of her days guarding that corner for her owners, David and Dorothy Gardener, who are experiencing temporary homelessness.
Though the Gardeners are homeless, little Malika is far from it. She’s not in the pound, waiting to be adopted or rescued before her time runs out. She’s not running around in the streets or woods, fending for herself.
Instead, she’s smiling. Her tongue is lolling in the heat of an Athens August, as she perches atop the pile of bedding the Gardeners sleep on every night, but keep folded neatly next to them during the day. Malika seems comfortable on her blanket throne, but it won’t be long before she meekly crawls over to David’s lap to snag a few pats, whimpering adorably in case he fails to notice, but he doesn’t.
“She’s been with us through thick and thin,” Dorothy says, as she picks up Malika and holds her close. And there’s no denying it: The Gardeners have been homeless off and on for about seven years, and they’ve had Malika for more than four. They call her a longhair chihuahua, but her wiry, Yorkie-like coat doesn’t look anything like silky chihuahua hair; it’s hard to tell if she’s ever had a bath.
Most would assume it would be challenging to keep a pet while its companions struggle to maintain their own situation, but the Gardeners disagree. “Ain’t no hard part; ain’t never tough,” Dorothy says.
So, no: Malika isn’t homeless, but she doesn’t enjoy the stability or premium care that many dogs in permanent homes do, either. She’s somewhere in between.
And she’s not alone. Plenty of animals live this half-homeless, half-not lifestyle. For example, crust punks and train-hoppers often keep large dogs for protection. Many renters feed and socialize the neighborhood felines. Others, like Mitchell Holland, find homeless animals and, for one reason or another, end up keeping them.
Audio Slideshow: Blueberry and Her Person
However, that certainly wasn’t Holland’s original intention. When Blueberry, his Australian cattle dog, found him as he was picking muscadines in the woods, he was determined not to keep her. Holland had her checked for a microchip, sure that nobody would willingly lose a beautiful purebred dog, but none was found. He even ran an ad in the paper, which met with no response. No one claimed her.
Even still, he was apprehensive about keeping a dog, considering that he chooses not to have a home or a job. He lives in a hut in the woods outside the Loop, and he volunteers at the Bigger Vision Homeless Shelter daily, where he is also on the board. When he pointed out that he wouldn’t be able to volunteer there if he kept the dog, then-director Barbara Andersen told him, “Nonsense. If you come here, the dog can come here.”
It’s worked out pretty well for Blueberry, who is asleep in the warm sunshine on the outdoor porch when Holland takes me to meet her. She promptly sits up and walks over to me for a few pats, which she returns generously in licks. Then she makes the rounds to the other folks on the porch before resuming her sunny spot.
“She’s kind of been adopted as the mascot here,” Holland says. When he walks away, though, she’s quick at his heels, clearly not confused about her priorities. “She don’t go more than 10 or 12 feet away from me at any time,” he says. “I accuse her of being somewhat brain-damaged for spending the time with me that she does.”
Like the Gardeners, Holland doesn’t seem to have much difficulty keeping Blueberry, saying he hasn’t experienced the obstacles he anticipated. Both owners also adopted a hard stance when it comes to keeping their dogs.
“If my dog’s not welcome, I’m not welcome. If I have to battle the elements, she can too,” says David Gardener. Holland echoes that sentiment when he tells me, “I’m not looking to get back into the world, per se, and in the event that I were, and I were to gain housing through some of the established routes to do that, I might have to give her up. If Blueberry couldn’t be a part of that, then it wouldn’t happen.”
Unfortunately, the choice wasn’t that simple for another dog-owner, David Driscoll, who was forced to give up his dog, Charlie, a rottweiler-husky mix, when he decided to enter the Salvation Army a few months ago.
“It was the hardest choice,” Driscoll says. Now he’s waiting on his own apartment, where he’ll be able to house Charlie again after getting him registered as a therapy dog. Until then, a friend is keeping him, and Driscoll sees him when he can on his days off work. “I just keep holding on for tomorrow,” he says.
Today, they’re just relaxing on north campus and visiting friends, but Driscoll and Charlie have accomplished some impressive feats together, like hiking the entire Appalachian Trail, all while Charlie trotted patiently behind, unburdened by a leash. In fact, Driscoll even sleeps without tethering Charlie—impressive trust and loyalty there. Charlie’s helped make Driscoll money, too. Once, in Boston, he got Charlie howling, and passers-by would stop and howl with them, offering donations. They splurged on Chinese food that night.
“I like to think he saved my life,” Driscoll says. “but it’s probably more like he saved me from hurting myself or someone else.”
Homeless or not, owning a pet is a huge responsibility, and obviously it can be extremely rewarding, well worth the complications it creates. Plus, a person doesn’t have to be homeless to have financial barriers to providing good care. Plenty of dogs who live in permanent housing are neglected and mistreated daily.
“Just because someone’s homeless shouldn’t mean they’re not allowed to have a companion animal,” Athens-Clarke County Animal Control Superintendent Patrick Rives says, “And there may be some good reasons for them to [have one]... There is a psychological impact of having a companion animal, and I wouldn’t want to take that away from someone.
“That being said,” Rives continues, “We have to enforce our local laws and standards. If we come across someone, homeless or not, who’s not providing that care, [correcting those issues is] part of what we do."
Though he has one himself, Holland says he “cringes” when he hears others express a desire to own an animal. “In the homeless society, a lot of people struggle with taking care of themselves, and I just don’t think a dog should be put through that," he says. "And I know that’s probably the pot calling the kettle black, but a dog is a huge responsibility. A pet is a huge responsibility.
“I don’t worry about what I’m gonna eat,” because most of it comes through the shelter, he says. “Now, I do have to concern myself about what she’s gonna eat—the whole idea of being responsible for another being.”
Feeding a dog doesn’t seem to be a big stressor for homeless owners. “If I need food, she gets food,” Holland says. Sometimes he buys it, and sometimes it’s given to him by friends or family. He carries water from the shelter back to their hut.
Driscoll and Charlie often share what they catch when they’re hiking. Charlie brings back groundhogs, chipmunks and rabbits for the two.
Malika’s owners usually buy her cat food—she refuses dog food, struggling to chew kibble—from Lay-Z Shopper or Golden Pantry, but she’s no stranger to hamburger, steak, hash browns or chicken-tender leftovers. She eats what the Gardeners provide for her.
When it comes to medical care, these dog owners usually receive help from others. Blueberry and Charlie have both been altered; Holland told me that’s one of the first things he did after he had her checked for a microchip. His brother helped him with the expense of that procedure and her other routine veterinary care, like her vaccines. Driscoll has a friend in Watkinsville who's a vet tech and reminds him when Charlie needs shots and preventatives. Charlie needed emergency vet once, too, when he got hit by a car.
Malika, however, is not spayed. “I’m going to try to breed her at least one time, to keep the bloodline,” says David. “A lot of people would buy one of her pups,” says Dorothy, also informing me that someone offered to pay up to $500 for Malika.
Malika’s situation, even so, seems tenuous, although she is so obviously happy sitting there in David’s lap, and he is so glad to have her there. But as Rives said, “There’s excellent care, and there’s minimum care. And I think a lot of people don’t understand that we can’t force someone to be a good owner; we can only prevent them from being a bad one. There’s not really a tipping point there; it’s more of a spectrum.”
The bottom line is that “adult, healthy dogs are not that expensive to care for,” says Rives. In addition to low-cost spay and neuter clinics, the Athens Area Humane Society also offers vaccines at significantly reduced prices—rabies vaccines, by the way, are mandated by state law—and other resources are available, too.
Our Daily Bread, the soup kitchen that operates out of First Baptist Church on Pulaski Street, partnered with the University of Georgia veterinary school to create Food Bowl, which provides free dog and cat food to folks who can’t afford to buy it. Zach Burgess, manager of Our Daily Bread, explains that they noticed some clients taking extra food with them when they left. They thought the people were just hungry until they realized those folks had pets and were giving the extra food to the animals.
“Sometimes, we didn’t have extra food, so they couldn’t take food out to give to the dog, so they wouldn’t eat all their food and just split it in half," Burgess says. "They were sharing their food with the dog.”
The vet school donates unused dog and cat food, and Our Daily Bread gives away individually packaged bags on the first Tuesday of every month, from 10–11 a.m., to whomever shows up and is in need. “It’s been very successful. We don’t see people trying to carry food out as much,” Burgess says.
While food may not be difficult to provide, the time and mental commitment it takes to keep a dog is nothing to scoff at. On the other hand, the mere fact that a dog is a huge responsibility can be beneficial rather than burdensome in some situations. When you have to make a commitment like that to another being every day, that’s huge. It’s a driving force that can motivate an individual to keep moving, even when the thought alone is exhausting.
For the Gardeners, who are currently working on returning to Dahlonega and getting an apartment there, Malika has definitely filled that role. “She’s like a little kid,” says David. “She sleeps right between me and her. I tie her up when we’re getting ready to go to lay down, and she’s the first one under the cover.” He’s also had three strokes, and he says that Malika helps keep his stress levels down.
Ed Moore, current director of Bigger Vision, says it’s sometimes difficult to watch homeless folks work so hard just to get into the shelter at night during the winter. “If you worked as hard to get out of our shelter as you do to get into it, you’d be doing yourself a big favor,” Moore says. However, even making that small commitment to yourself every day to call in at 4 p.m. and reserve your spot is a driving force. Owning a dog and committing to it every day can be an extension of that motivation, he says.
There is some truth in that. None of these dog-owners are chronically homeless. They're all working or volunteering or seeking better accommodations. Though Blueberry, Malika and Charlie don’t have fenced-in yards or an abundance of fancy toys, they seem content to receive the care and affection their owners provide and to reciprocate it doubly.
At the end of the day, it’s not surprising to find that these folks are committed to keeping their animals. After all, it seems like they’d have to be. “You know,” Holland says, “It’s kind of odd that the dog was homeless and found me, and now it’s not, even though I am.”
If You Get a Dog
If you are at risk of or experiencing temporary homelessness and already have a dog or are considering getting one, here are some things to think through, courtesy of ACC Animal Control Administrator Patrick Rives:
• Don’t get a puppy. They’re expensive the first year or two.
• Determine if you have the resources for minimum veterinary care, which includes rabies, parvo and distemper shots.
• Can you afford or obtain quality food?
• Can you promise to do the bare minimum to prevent your dogs’ health from declining?
• Decide where you will obtain water.
• Decide what you will do if the dog gets sick. Keep in mind it can’t go to the shelter if it’s already sick with a contagious disease.