Five Weeks Can Change a Family’s World Forever: An Origin Story of Paws Between Homes

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October 28, 2018: It’s the middle of a Sunday afternoon, and an email comes across my desktop, destined for an undisclosed list of potential helpers for a pet owner in need. Working for an animal welfare organization, I get a lot of emails like this. We always seem to be upside-down when it comes to needs surpassing resources. This email is from a friend, Debra Berger, who works for the Humane Society of the United States as Georgia’s State Director. I’m on Debra’s recipients list because she knows I work for LifeLine Animal Project and have connections to local resources and communities.

October 29, 2018: I respond to Debra, asking for more details about the person in need. A woman living out of state has reached out for assistance for her brother, Joseph (not his real name), who is living in the northern suburbs of Atlanta and is suddenly facing homelessness. Joseph is clearly in a vulnerable situation, not sure where he will locate himself, and his stated priority is to secure a safe haven for his four rescued cats. Joseph lives in a county outside my organization’s service area, and I reach out to some friends who live on a farm in the country to see if they can help foster.

October 30, 2018: Debra finds a way to put Joseph and me in touch directly, and he and I commence a conversation that immediately toggles me into his world.

October 31, 2018: Joseph tells me his story. He lives on his own and suffers from a medical condition that has caused him workplace issues in the past. He’s just been unexpectedly laid off from a job he has held for the past 10 years, one that has allowed him to work from home and manage his medical condition successfully with the help of a very expensive insurance policy. Suddenly faced with a complete loss of income and no way to pay his housing or his insurance premium, he knows he needs to act quickly. His four cats are his family, and, afraid he will soon be living in his truck, Joseph shares their stories with me to enable me to help find them safe haven. Three of the cats are a mother and her two adult babies who came to his door one day 6 years ago, when the younger cats were still small kittens, and chose Joseph (as cats do) to be their forever person. The fourth is a 10-year-old male named Roadrash (“Roady,” for short), whom Joseph found at 6 weeks old. Roadie had been tossed out of a car at 60 mph and rescued by Joseph’s vet. Roady has one eye, one and a half ears, and a single tooth. He’s quirky and kind of grumpy, and for this reason he’s the one Joseph is most worried about.

“I’m very attached to them, and they’re very important to me. Initially, I’d hoped to get them back one day, but realistically, I just can’t see that happening in any reasonable time frame. So, as much as it hurts, I just want to make as sure as I can that they’ll end up–together or separately–in a home that they’ll be as comfortable in as they’ve been with me…and where they’ll be loved as much as I’ve loved them. It pains me deeply to give them up, but their happiness means everything to me, and they won’t have that while I’m trying to find a home. Not with me, anyway.”

November 1, 2018: As I collect information about Joseph’s cats, I reach back out to Debra to let her know that I’m exhausting my own organization’s contacts and still am coming up short for Joseph. In the meantime, I’m also working on other cases with people in similar situations. One man, currently homeless with two large dogs whom he’s boarded at a local vet and run out of money, needs to get immediate help, and I’m struggling to divert his two large dogs from shelter intake while he stabilizes his living situation.

Debra and I commiserate about the unwelcome trend we’re seeing: people experiencing housing instability, attempting to steady themselves and regain balance, faced with an additional crisis as they strive to keep animal family members with them. What we are seeing is that, though their period of instability may be relatively short-lived, people are forced into making decisions that will permanently affect their family make-up if they have no alternative but to surrender their pets to animals shelters.

November 2, 2018: But even as Debra and I are collecting resources and sharing them with Joseph, he succumbs to the pressure of his situation and surrenders the cats to the county shelter. He tells me he needs to focus on clearing his stuff out of his house, and with only two days remaining to get out before the house is sold, he could see no other option. He’s bereft and grieving, and he’s focusing all his energies on the task at hand.

November 6, 2018: Debra and I go into overdrive. I am working on supporting Joseph to stabilize his housing, and Debra reaches out to the shelter and explains the situation to someone there who agrees to hold the cats for a short time until we can create some alternate plan for their care. I let the Joseph that we have been able to get him a short reprieve that will allow him to reclaim his cats, an outcome he was certain was no longer available to him. With the help of a local expert on homelessness, we ask Joseph a series to questions that allows us to gauge his current needs and identify the finances and services he has access to. He is so moved and inspired by this new development that for a moment he is able to take a deep breath and look around. And from that moment, things begin to shift.

November 7, 2018: Joseph’s landlord gives him an extra 10 days to stay in the house before the sale closes, enough time to allow him to reach out to several friends with requests for foster homes for his cats and lodging and work for him. He goes back to the shelter the next day and elatedly reclaims his cats. And while I research a host of local cat boarding facilities and get all sorts of details, he hears from a friend who lives in Florida who offers him temporary lodging and work.

November 8, 2018: I hear back from Joseph that the cats are back with him, and he is renewed. “Thank you Sarah….I can’t thank you enough. Went from one of the worst days of my life, to one of the best, in less than a week. Thank you. They’re home again, and it’s like they never left.”

November 12, 2018: Within a few days, Joseph learns that a friend who lives in South Carolina is willing to foster two of the four cats, and he determines that with only two cats in his care, he is able to take the pair with him while he stays in a hotel for the short term. “Again, thanks for your interest, concern, and assistance. You’ve been instrumental in keeping me positive and looking ahead. I was very far from that when I first contacted you.” November 30, 2018: Joseph remains in the Atlanta area for two more weeks to undergo some medical treatments, and thereafter he heads down to Florida where the promise a friend’s RV allows him to rebuild his life.

December 4, 2018: I get an email from Joseph reporting that he is situated in his new space, negotiating a full-time position in his friend’s company, and that his two cats are exploring their new environment and settling in nicely. From here, Debra and I regroup to consider how to cull the information we have garnered over the past five weeks. We engage the network of relationships we have already called upon, as well as some new ones we can bring into the mix, to envision some sort of structure to support people similarly situated. And in this moment, the seed that would grow into Paws Between Homes was sown.

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