When Mike Grimler lost his home, he knew a lot was about to change.
But when it came to his two dogs, Peanut and Maggie May, there was no way he’d continue without them, he said.
The dogs had been with Grimler since they were puppies, he said, and when Grimler’s fiancée got sick toward the end of last year, he promised her that he would keep them safe.
For Grimler and many other people experiencing homelessness in metro Phoenix, having animals can be a barrier to finding emergency housing. Few shelters in the Valley can accommodate pets. That’s why Grimler said he was so relieved to learn St. Vincent de Paul’s Washington Street shelter had a place for him, Peanut and Maggie to stay together.
“Thank God for this place,” he said.
What services does the program offer?
St. Vincent de Paul started their companion animal program in 2021 because of an overwhelming need for pet resources by people experiencing homelessness. Last year, St. Vincent de Paul sheltered 101 pets, spayed or neutered 43 and vaccinated 308 — all for free. The program is available whether or not the pet’s owner is staying at the Washington Street shelter, which is at the corner of 28th Street in Phoenix.
The companion animal program has donated pantries with pet food, water bowls, treats and toys. Frequent clinics allow owners to spay and neuter their pets. Staff can set up vet appointments — with transportation included — when an animal needs immediate attention.
The program’s manager, Alberto Diaz, said he’s proud to offer these services. He’s an animal lover, he said, and he knows just how important it is to have what’s needed to care for a pet.
“It’s that empathy for both the human and the pet,” Diaz said of the program. “Just really trying to be that voice for them both.”
St. Vincent de Paul has partnered with animal behaviorist Dianne Decker to offer dog training sessions specifically targeted to the needs of people who are experiencing homelessness. The training sessions have been offered at the Washington Street shelter since November.
On a Wednesday morning in June, Grimler sat with Peanut and Maggie circling at his feet as they waited for a training session. A mix of terriers and pit bulls had gathered for the day’s class.
Decker came to the Washington Street shelter equipped with a pouch of liver treats to command the audience. While the lesson was primarily about safety tips for dogs exposed to extreme heat, Decker answered specific questions, too.
Grimler wanted to know whether his dogs could continue to enjoy their favorite bedtime snacks of human food.
“Everyone has a guilty pleasure,” Grimler said.
Grimler said becoming homeless has been a transition for all three of them. Last year, as Grimler’s fiancée’s illness worsened, Grimler relied more and more on Peanut and Maggie for emotional support. After she passed, he said, it was his dogs that gave him the ability to continue.
“If I don’t have them, I don’t know if I’d still be here or not,” Grimler said.
Decker said she enjoyed few things more than seeing the bond between a dog and its owner.
Briceida Oliver-Garcia and Tina Roggenbuck came to the training with their 7-month-old dog, Babygirl. The energetic pit bull mix arrived with a bubblegum pink collar and plenty of energy, which Roggenbuck and Oliver-Garcia said can sometimes make it difficult for her to control.
Decker worked with the two to find ways to manage Babygirl in chaotic environments. She said this skill could be essential when dogs move into permanent housing, as some landlords and homeowners hesitate to allow large animals in their properties.
Isabel Tapia, who is expecting a baby later this year, was living at the Washington Street shelter for about a month when she attended Decker’s class with her two dogs, Zena and Jax. Decker said Tapia’s expanding family is a perfect example of how dog training can help.
“If I can help her feel safe and in control, that’s what I’m here for,” Decker said.
St. Vincent de Paul’s companion animal program has expanded steadily over the last two years, Diaz said.
Next spring, St. Vincent de Paul plans to open The Marion and Bob Auray Companion Animal Clinic for the pets of people experiencing homelessness. It will be staffed by veterinary professionals and students from Midwestern University. Diaz said the clinic would provide even more opportunities to keep pets safe, something he knows will mean everything to their owners.
“These are our kids,” Diaz said.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Phoenix program works to help pet owners experiencing homelessness