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Nonprofit’s director sees value in helping homeless people – and their pets

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013, at 8:14 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Jan. 20, 2014, at 6:23 a.m.

If Sandy Swank had to choose between giving up her four dogs and living in the streets, she says she’d choose the streets.

The director of housing and homeless services for Inter-Faith Ministries, Swank keeps that in mind when people who are homeless show up at the Inter-Faith Inn, one of the organization’s three shelters.

Officially, the Inter-Faith Inn doesn’t allow pets.

But unofficially, Swank will consider them on a case-by-case basis.

“We’ve had an iguana, potbellied pigs, hedgehogs,” Swank said. “We’ve had dogs and cats, a tarantula. One guy went fishing and brought a crawfish back and said it was his pet. I put the crawfish in a fish tank, and it lived three years. He was like a small lobster, Beasley the Crawfish.”

Swank would leash Beasley up on a cord and take him on walks.

“I try to figure out a way to work with them. A lot of people who have pets out there, that’s like their family,” Swank said. “I can tell you if I had to make a choice about going into a shelter and staying with Madea (her newest dog), I would stay with Madea. There’s just not a question in my mind. More important, if I’m a faith person, which I am, then I also have to think about what is the right thing to do.

“If it’s a question of letting someone freeze to death, or letting their pet in, I think it’s a fairly easy question to answer.”

To accommodate a pet, Swank said she requires that the animal have paperwork proving they are up-to-date on vaccinations.

“The problem is that most of them do not have current shot records,” she said.

Swank has reached out to veterinarians for assistance getting pets up-to-date on vaccinations, she said.

Wichita’s other shelters for the homeless don’t accept pets. Mosaic, a church that shelters people downtown, does accept pets, but it may soon close because its building on South Market is up for auction.

Robert and Leslie Moody often spend time there with their dog, Toshia Lynn, an English springer spaniel.

The couple has been homeless for years – Robert Moody also has been in trouble with the law for aggravated battery – and opts to sleep under a bridge to stay with Toshia.

They zip two sleeping bags together at night, and Toshia sleeps between them at the bottom, Leslie Moody said.

The couple said they can’t bring themselves to leave Toshia to stay at a shelter at night when an opening is available.

“It’d be like giving up a kid,” Robert Moody said. “She’s a part of my family.”

People in the homeless community know Toshia.

“We have people who know her name who don’t know ours,” Leslie Moody said. “She’s like the homeless mascot. She’s got more friends than we’ve got.”

A federal law passed after Hurricane Katrina requires that emergency management agencies’ plans accommodate the needs of people with household pets and service animals. Many people during the storm refused to evacuate because they didn’t want to leave their pets.

But there is no such law for shelters for the homeless.

The nonprofit group Pets of the Homeless lists 20 pet-friendly shelters across the country on its website, www.petsofthehomeless.org.

The organization provides pet food and veterinary care to pets of people who are homeless.

Neil J. Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said that group estimates that about 1 percent of the overall population experiences homelessness in a year, or about 3.1 million to 3.5 million people.

The daily capacity of shelters across the country is about 500,000.

Donovan estimates that about 1 percent of all homeless people and 10 percent of unsheltered homeless people have pets.

“There are shelters around the country, although they are far and few between, that have resources” to accept pets, Donovan said. “Having run a shelter in the past, I can say it’s hard enough to conform to health code with just humans.”

But Donovan said the homeless “experience is profoundly lonely. When you have a pet like that, I don’t think it’s second best. I know when my dog walks up to me, it’s as good as a ‘hello’ as I get during the day.”

Animals, he said, don’t judge. They don’t care about money or what you have or don’t have.

“But people don’t belong on the streets, and pets don’t belong on the streets,” Donovan said.

Reach Deb Gruver at 316-268-6400 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com.

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