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  • 16 Sep 2014

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PAW gives homeless pets a lift

New clinic, more money help care for animals and owners
by: JAIME VALDEZ Lynne Walker kisses Dobby, a chihuahua, at the Portland Animal Welfare Team's former site on Southeast Division Street. Walker was homeless when she first sought treatment for Dobby through PAW. Now living in an apartment, she's a PAW volunteer.

The small black dog was chosen because he’d been abused, his owner said. “He was all beaten up. He reminded me of myself,” says Sarah Thorne, 37, of downtown Portland. She adopted Ari, a mix of Chihuahua and rat terrier breeds with saucer eyes and a way of standing tall on his hind legs in moments of excitement, at the Oregon Humane Society in 2009 when he was a puppy. Since Thorne fled an abusive relationship and came to Portland from Tennessee in 2001, she’s slept in many places, including a Walmart parking lot. She moved into Bud Clark Commons, apartments for the formerly homeless in Old Town, after seven years of homelessness. Through it all, a program for low-income pet owners helped Thorne take care of Ari, providing shots and food and a new harness and collar. The program, called the Portland Animal Welfare Team, signed the lease in December on a new Northwest Portland space that will be the first clinic in the country dedicated to homeless people and their pets. “Portland provides us with a window into the future,” says Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “You’re frankly doing it right as far as homelessness, compared to some places. PAW is part of that.” This month, the team moves from the building on Southeast Division Street where monthly clinics have been held since 2009 to the 10-office site on Northwest Front Street near the Greyhound bus station. Setup costs will be more than $10,000, says Wendy Kohn, PAW executive director. Multnomah County Animal Services is adding a surgery room to the layout of the clinic with $25,000. PAW was one of five programs picked to benefit from a Friends of the Shelters grant to animal services of $71,000 because the team helps ease the burden of sick dogs and cats that exhausts the county every year, said Mike Oswald, animal services director. “We’re constantly dealing with people who are struggling financially,” Oswald says. “By enabling people to be successful themselves, it becomes less of the system’s problem.” Long waiting lists When Kohn, a Portland veterinarian now living in Connecticut, launched PAW in the late 1990s, she drove a van loaded with supplies to bridges and parking lots. Then, in 2008, a Portland man created a fund that allotted $20,000 annually to PAW, Kohn says. Flush with the donation, PAW became a formal nonprofit in 2009 and moved into the Division Street space that year, turning clinics that were held four or five times a year into a monthly events. The rent, just $300 a month, was a big step, Kohn says. The group hired an executive director and a medical director. Before, Kohn and everyone else was a volunteer. Kohn, who still runs PAW from the East Coast, says she started the program because she saw a hole in services given to the people who love pets most. “ ‘Homeless people can’t take care of themselves. How can they take care of a pet?’ I get that all the time,” Kohn says. “You’re talking about a person who has nothing else. Taking away their pet would be cruel.” She finds the pets of homeless people to be better-socialized than house dogs — “more laid-back and hardy,” she says. Ari became outgoing as he learned to live on the streets, according to Thorne. “He used to be afraid of men,” she says. “He probably got hit by one before I got him. Now he’s starting to trust them, like me.” There’s no extensive data reflecting how many homeless people own pets, but the seeming climb in homelessness and homeless pet owners prompted the Portland Housing Bureau and Multnomah County to tally the number for the first time in a small unpublished survey that was part of the city’s 2011 One Night Homeless Count. Of 263 individuals, couples and families questioned in January, 50 were pet owners, says Sally Erickson, manager of homeless programs with Portland’s Home Forward (the former Portland Housing Authority). But the number — about 20 percent — was never released because the survey wasn’t random enough, she says. The increase in people attending clinics has been noticeable, according to PAW counts. About 40 pets were treated in the early days, Kohn says, compared to 60 pets per month by 2009 and up to 100 animals each month now. Waiting lists for spay and neuter surgeries force staff to schedule clients six months out, she says. Kohn attributed the growing need to the economy. Scores of pet owners are turned away every month, she says, adding that she hopes the new site will offer more services. Jermaine Keyes, 39, can attest to the need for more. He brings his cat, Princess, to the monthly clinic that PAW holds at Bud Clark Commons, in addition to the clinic offered each month at PAW headquarters. “Instead of them seeing everybody, we have to wait still for her shots,” he said, nuzzling Princess’ fur. “They should see all the people that need to be seen.”