Cincinnati program helps pets when owners are homeless

CINCINNATI (AP) — There’s almost no smile quite like that of a man reunited with his dog.

And so it was a few weeks ago with Cleve Williams, 64, and Cash, 16 months.

But if you think this is simply a story about a man and his dog, you’d be mistaken. It is, rather, a story about families. And those, of course, include pets. And the humans, some of whom fall into homelessness.

Williams was out on the street after he had a parting of ways with a longtime girlfriend just about a year ago. Try as he might, he couldn’t find a reasonably priced apartment with a landlord who would take him and the boundless bundle of unbridled energy, he said. He called about having the Labrador-pit bull mix named Cash adopted, but Williams just couldn’t part with the pooch he adopted as a four-week-old pup that tried to eat money on the front seat of his car — hence his name.

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“No ma’am, I couldn’t do it. I was bawling like a little girl,” said Williams, shaking his head. “He’s my buddy. He’s my family.”

So Williams, who is on disability, and Cash stayed in his Jeep. At night, Williams slept in a local man’s shelter while Cash slept in the vehicle. Williams made sure the dog had food and water and was safe.

But the man with a wide grin knew it wasn’t a good long-term solution. He worried someone would discover Cash and someone would take away his dog.

A shelter worker told him about a relatively new program at Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati that provides temporary shelter for pets of homeless families in the region. The pets are reunited with their owners once they find and retain stable housing.

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Williams has sheltered Cash there twice — once for a couple weeks in late August and again from October 24 until Dec. 13.

“This program right here has been a blessing,” he said, just a few days after he settled into a new apartment that allows him to have Cash. “They took care of Cash, when I couldn’t. They fed him, walked him and took him to the vet. That helped me focus on getting a place without having to worry about him.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better place for Cash,” Williams said as he rubbed the dog’s head as Cash nuzzled his leg.

That’s exactly the point, said Stacey Burge, executive director of Interfaith Hospitality Network, one of four local nonprofits that provide shelter to families.

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Burge, an animal lover herself, knows the emotionally powerful bond between children — and adults — and their pets. She has found that bond is so unwavering that parents and their children will sleep on the street or in their cars before giving up their pets.

And that, she said, is not good for anyone.

“Our mission is to shelter and house families. This is an extension of helping families,” said Burge, who added that children are deeply traumatized when they become homeless largely through no fault of their own. They leave friends and classmates and their room and their home behind. Keeping a pet is one way to provide a sliver of stability.

“A house is not a home without a pet,” she added.

Burge is quick to point out the money that funds the pet program is separate from human shelter funding. Her nonprofit works with 26 congregations across the region to provide meals and overnight shelter for up to eight families at any time. Interfaith provides daytime assistance to families, including after-school care, showers, laundry facilities and works to help them find permanent housing. In addition, it hosts a therapy dog once a week to help children.

The pet program is funded by $30,000 in grants and contributions. It is largely staffed by dozens of volunteers. A grant allowed Burge to hire former volunteer and intern Garrett Parsons, 22, as the network’s first part-time pet coordinator this year. Several local veterinarians provide services for free or at reduced costs. And a handful of pet stores have provided food and other items.

At any one time, it can shelter up to four dogs, six cats and one small animal such as a hamster or turtle, he said. Cats are kenneled in one area and dogs in another. Families, when able, visit and care for their pets. The other times, volunteers care for them.

Williams and Cash paid a visit to Interfaith. Before they left, Parsons handed Williams a parting gift: A few treats and a dog toy.

The dog pulled on his leash as Parsons grabbed his head and playfully wrestled with the dog before he left with his owner.

But before they could get out the door, Williams promised they’d be back — but only for a visit.