The October 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee

 
 

National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website

 

 

In this issue:

Federal Housing Cuts to Blame for Homelessness

Judge Halts OHA Evictions

The Crime of Pushing a Cart

Giving Love to a Homeless Dog

Clergy Denounce Police Sweeps of Homeless

St. Mary's on the Move for Justice

Oaxaca's Radical Teachers

Berkeley Is Hard on the Homeless

Giant Puppets Stand Tall for Justice

Poor Leonard: On History

October Poetry of the Streets


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Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

Going the Extra Mile to Help a Homeless Dog

"Most of the homeless people I've known will feed their dog before they feed themselves. The dog may be the only being in their life that accepts them." -- Teddy Knight

Story and interviews by Joan Clair

Teddy Knight adopted Patches, a homeless pit bull terrier, from two homeless young people who rescued the dog but couldn't keep him. Lydia Gans photo

Berkeley resident Teddy Knight goes the extra mile to lend a helping hand, but to her it just seems natural. Having grown up in the rural outskirts of Memphis, Tennessee, Teddy, now 70, says she is no stranger to poverty. As a child, the highlight of her year was getting a big bale of used clothes from wealthier relatives in Washington, D.C.

When she was young, she was taught to share. Her family was hospitable to strangers, and neighbors were always welcome when they dropped by.

Teddy Knight embodies today what she learned while growing up. In recent years, she has volunteered at YEAH, the youth shelter in Berkeley, prepared meals for the homeless and established friendships with several of the homeless people in her West Berkeley neighborhood.

Therefore, when Teddy ran into two young homeless people panhandling outside a Berkeley laundromat for laundry money, it didn't seem unusual to her to invite them home to use her washer and dryer, and even take a shower. The homeless couple, Annabelle and Tattoo, visited Teddy's home several times after that to do their laundry. When they rescued a dog they named Patches, they brought him along and Teddy made him welcome also.

The story of Patches' rescue is, sadly, not an unusual one. Annabelle, an "animal person" who had volunteered at the San Diego Zoo, and Tattoo discovered a man at the Berkeley pound one evening about to put Patches into one of the pound's holding boxes. The man, who was not homeless, said he couldn't afford to feed Patches anymore.

However, after an assessment of Patches was done at the Berkeley Humane Society, it was suspected that someone had tried to train Patches to be a fighting dog and, having failed, decided to dump him. Annabelle and Tattoo persuaded the man to give the dog to them.

Eventually, Annabelle and Tattoo decided to leave Berkeley. They received a voucher to travel to San Diego by Greyhound Bus. Yet, due to the segregation of domestic animals prevalent in our society in public transportation and elsewhere, they couldn't bring Patches on the bus with them. It was also unlikely, had they tried to hitch, that anyone would have picked up two young people with an 85-pound American pit bull terrier, due to the fear of this breed.

As a result, Annabelle and Tattoo asked Teddy Knight if she could keep Patches temporarily until they could return for him, and she agreed.

Teddy, who had previously been a human companion to a dog in her home, had never had a pit bull. She learned a lot about attitudes towards this breed of dogs in the process of assuming responsibility for Patches. She also has found a lot of respect for the way homeless people take care of their dogs.

Fortunately, Patches was not discarded and now has a permanent home with Teddy Knight and her partner John McNabb. Although Annabelle and Tattoo did eventually want to take Patches back, it was decided that it would not be fair to subject him to another separation. He and Teddy have formed a bond. They have been together for more than two and a half years.

In fact, just as Teddy went the extra mile for Patches, Patches has gone many extra miles for Teddy. She says that shortly after she got Patches, she had surgery for thyroid cancer. Patches stayed close to her all during that time, and after she recovered from the surgery, the dog became her "personal trainer."

I interviewed Teddy Knight at her Berkeley home about her experiences in adopting a homeless dog.

Street Spirit: What do you mean when you say Patches became your personal trainer after your surgery?

Teddy Knight: He took on the role. As a result of him, I get lots of exercise. He always wants to go for a walk. I walk one or more miles a day with him which has really helped my blood pressure. I would never walk this much just for my own well-being.
In fact, this is one of the reasons why the dogs of homeless people remain healthy. They get plenty of exercise. Some of the people I know who are homeless in West Berkeley walk with their dogs for several miles every day.

Street Spirit: You have also said that the personalities of homeless dogs may differ from dogs with homes.

Teddy: Yes. For example, dogs who have homes are much more territorial and, therefore, more prone to be aggressive towards other dogs that encroach on their territory .Dogs on the street don't have homes to protect and are less territorial and aggressive. They are more socialized as they meet lots of other people and dogs. A whole street becomes their community.

Street Spirit: You've also made some observations about the good care homeless people give to their animals.

Teddy: Most of the homeless people I've known will feed their dog before they feed themselves. The dog may be the only being in their life that accepts them.

Street Spirit: Unconditional love, as in "dog" spelled backwards is "god."

Teddy: Homeless people have been depersonalized by the mainstream. They may internalize the judgments that they are failures, not worthy, not good enough. Their dog, on the other hand, lets them know they are valued and loved. Their dog doesn't demand that they be a certain way; they're accepted at face value by their dog. The dog is a life saver, and, as a result of their dog they may feel they have some value.

Street Spirit: And possibly, that is the only value really worth having. They are loved for themselves, not for their accomplishments, the amount of money they have, or any of the other trappings that can commodify a person and provide fodder for the ego. People spend thousands of dollars to discover their true self, the self without conditions, beyond achievement and money, and unconditional love through one spiritual discipline or path or another. A homeless person can discover all this through their relationship with their dog.

Teddy: Chronically homeless people can't live up to society's expectations. However, a lot of stuff that is true for the homeless is also true for the human condition. As a part of my training to become a deacon in the Episcopal Church, I was required to go to food pantries and places where one could get a free meal as if I was homeless myself. I found the other homeless people there to be very helpful and generous. They'd network with information, letting me know where I could go to get a haircut, shoes and clothes. I've seen them demonstrate this same generosity towards their dogs.

Street Spirit: Generosity and kindness towards all beings should be one of society's expectations. When you assumed responsibility for Patches, did you have any idea of what would be involved in caring for a pit bull?

Teddy: I had to learn as I went along. Initially, when Patches came to live with me, he was very depressed. I gave him a chair that was "his chair" and he stayed in it for four days. He refused to eat. He really missed "his people." Living with homeless people is different than living with family members who may work or go to school, and who are usually not with the dog all the time. Living with homeless people means being with them 24/7. The only thing that got Patches out of his chair was some neighborhood children who came over and befriended him.

Street Spirit: Yes, sometimes children can reach animals in a spontaneous way that grownups can't.

Teddy: They took Patches to the Skateboard Park in University Village. Unfortunately, one of the children got into a fight with another neighborhood boy, and the police were called. Patches was taken to the pound; the police said he was being used as a weapon. Fortunately, I had registered him.

When I was contacted, I was told that he would be kept overnight and assessed. However, within a short time they decided he was not dangerous, and I was allowed to take him home. However, I was told to be very careful about putting him in any situation where fighting was going on because even dogs that don't fight can be induced to fight if provoked enough. I was told not to let him out alone with teens or preteens who may not be mature enough to handle the reactions of other people.

Street Spirit: And after this incident you decided to get an independent assessment of Patches from the Berkeley Humane Society?

Teddy: Yes, and there I was told that Patches was a potentially dangerous dog, not at present, but that he could tip over. Bite marks were found around his face as if someone had tried to train him to be a fighting dog. He was assessed as very high-strung and hyper-reactive, although he is much calmer now than he was then. I was told he was a high-risk dog because he was a pit bull and not adoptable. In other words, had he been turned into the pound, he would have been put to sleep.

Street Spirit: Yes, there are many pounds and shelters throughout the country, including shelters in California, that will not put pit bulls up for adoption and will euthanize them if surrendered. In fact, there are some communities that are banning pit bulls and some other breeds entirely. It has been reported that in Denver, Colorado, local authorities go door-to-door and seize dogs that have the dangerous dog label and destroy them.

Teddy: As a result of all that and the assessment, I decided to put Patches into an obedience training class for dangerous dogs; but the same person who did the assessment told me that she didn't think that was necessary. Patches is really a very friendly dog. So we put him in the regular obedience training class for dogs, and that worked out quite well.

Street Spirit: Were there other difficulties when you first got Patches?

Teddy: This wasn't really a difficulty, but he needed some veterinary care. A growth on his gum was removed; his teeth were cleaned. Although I paid for this, people should know that the Berkeley Humane Society provides free veterinary services, including shots, spaying and neutering, for the animals of the homeless.

Street Spirit: That is a real service.

Teddy: Most of the difficulty, initially, came about because Patches is a pit bull, people are afraid of them, and I was inexperienced. I had a hard time keeping him in the house when I first got him. If I opened up the door, he'd take off running. Sometimes, I wouldn't see him taking off. He never ran more than a few blocks away and would be back in 15 minutes at the most. However, his running loose scared people. I got calls about that from the pound. We built a new fence around the yard so he can't get out anymore, although he can run free inside the yard.

Street Spirit: It sounds like you've made many efforts to be a responsible pet owner, and it also sounds like Patches doesn't fit the dangerous dog stereotype.

Teddy: Patches is friendly towards other dogs as well as people. He definitely doesn't fit the stereotype of an aggressive pit bull. In fact, when we first got him, we'd go with him to visit a homeless man and his dog, a black labrador, who live in the neighborhood. The dog, who was not neutered at the time, would attack Patches, but Patches would never respond to the assault by attacking back. He would move away.


Profiling and Prejudice: Harmful for Both Dogs and Human Beings

Interview by Joan Clair


A homeless man sleeps with his homeless friend near a freeway offramp. Dogs are the most loyal friends of many homeless people. Dogs are cherished because they give unconditional love to those treated as outcasts by society. Photo by Tia Torres Cardello

Seeking more insight into the issues of pit bulls and the dogs of homeless people, Street Spirit also interviewed Tia Torres Cardello, the director of the Villalobos Rescue Center in Los Angeles County.

The center is primarily a rescue center for pit bulls. Tia has worked extensively with pit bulls over the years and is recognized as an authority in regard to them. Tia had some comments about their label as dangerous dogs. She also stated that pit bulls are not a "perfected breed" - in other words, there has been a lot of cross-breeding.

Street Spirit: Have you found that pit bulls tend to be more aggressive?

Tia Torres Cardello: Pit bulls have been bred to be dog-to-dog aggressive. Therefore, there is more of a genetic disposition in this regard. However, they do not have a genetic disposition to be people aggressive. There's a joke about pit bulls being the best watch dogs. Yes, we say, they watch thieves taking all of their owner's belongings out of the house.

Street Spirit: But Teddy Knight's dog Patches, who you believe from his description to be an American pit bull terrier, is said to be quite friendly with other dogs.

Tia: This is why each dog must be regarded on an individual basis beyond stereotypes. There are many components involved. Raising a well-behaved dog is not that different from raising a well-behaved child. Genetics is a factor, but so is environment, management in the home, socialization and training. Take the example of Jeffrey Dahmer. He was raised by a loving family, but he was wired wrong.

On the other hand, people who are brought up in deplorable environments can turn out fine. The same is true of dogs. There are about five million pit bulls in this country, many more than other breeds. They don't necessarily go off more than other breeds, if we compare then in terms of their numbers.

Street Spirit: So you believe that there shouldn't be species profiling any more than there should be racial profiling?

Tia: Is every young, African American man a criminal? Becasue a good number of Catholic priests have been guilty of molestation, should we stop sending kids to church? I'd like to see a team of people investigate each pit bull attack individually. I'd like to see a Canine Crime Scene Investigation Unit created which would be composed of two dog trainers, one animal behaviorist, two Los Angeles city employees in law enforcement and a non-dog person. We need to get beyond generalities. The team should be given a month to investigate while the dog is incarcerated.

Street Spirit: So the solution is not to extinguish an entire breed, as it is reported some are attempting to do in some parts of the country like Denver, Colorado. At one time, pit bulls were a very popular and beloved breed in America.

Tia: For many years, I have hired parolees to work with the pit bulls in my sanctuary. The parolees are the underdogs of the human world. At present, the pit bulls are the underdogs of the canine world. Nobody wants either. It is very difficult to get a pit bull adopted.

Street Spirit: So the parolees and the pit bulls form a special bond, the same way a special bond is formed between unwanted homeless people and their dogs?

Tia: I have yet to see a skinny dog that belonged to a homeless person.

Street Spirit: I think we discovered after Katrina, as a result of the segregation of domestic animals in our society, that every dog is an underdog depending on the circumstances.

Tia: Yes, even with one slight shift of the norm they can be discarded.


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