Ben has been living on the streets of downtown Portland with Precious, his 7-year-old Pomeranian-Chihuahua mix, for the past four or five years. Ben is an older man who says that Precious loves the attention from people passing by. She’s a calm dog; she didn’t bark or move from her place in Ben’s arms the entire time we were talking.
“You know, we do what we have to do to survive,” said Ben, who gave only his first name. “This one is just so much joyful and giving me so much pleasure to have her, that makes it all matter in the world.”
It might seem counterintuitive for a homeless person to have a pet. Animals cost money and need care. It’s not easy to pursue job opportunities if you have nowhere to leave your pet during the day. And some emergency shelters won't take animals.
But for Ben and other homeless men and women, a dog can be more than just a luxury.
“People experience homelessness in kind of like peeling like an onion,” said Cindy Scheel, a homeless services program specialist with Multnomah County. “The outside layers go first. And ultimately your world gets smaller and smaller and the things you have left are your pets.”
Scheel said that despite the challenges, 20 to 25 percent of homeless individuals in Portland have pets. Services in Portland offer help to those who can’t afford to take care of their pets. One is Portland Animal Welfare (or PAW) Team, which offers veterinary care for the pets of people who are homeless or low-income. There’s also a pet food bank run by the Pongo Fund, an animal hunger program in Oregon.
“Animals basically fuzzy medicine," Scheel said. "They provide you with a sense of belonging, they provide you with unconditional love, which when you have lost everything, it’s really hard to find that.”
That’s certainly true for Ben and Precious. He said that wherever he goes, Precious comes with him, even to work.
That might cause a problem if Ben were in Eugene, where the city council recently passed an ordinance banning dogs from the downtown core.
Like Portland and many other West Coast cities, Eugene is dealing with a growing homelessness problem.
The idea started when the city hired consultants to give suggestions for how to better use their downtown space. When they asked Eugene residents about their feelings on downtown, the words that came up most were "dirty," "unsafe" and "homeless."
Some of the solutions proposed by citizens included more services and shelters for the homeless in the downtown area. But that will take a long time, and more money.
City leaders promised to come up with “lighter, quicker, cheaper interventions” starting this spring. In March, they considered two different ordinances: one banning dogs from the downtown core and another banning smoking. The smoking ban didn’t pass; city councilors worried that it would hurt downtown businesses. The dog ban, on the other hand, passed.
Starting in April, you won’t be able to bring a dog to downtown Eugene if you don’t live or work there. The ban is only a pilot ordinance. That means that it will sunset in November unless the city council decides to keep it going.
Emily Semple, one of the two Eugene city councilors who voted against the dog ban, visited OPB’s "Think Out Loud" before the ordinance was passed to talk about why she opposed it. She said the idea “came about because people with dogs hang out on the corners downtown and hiding in the group of homeless are people that are criminals. Thought being, 'We get rid of the dogs, those people won’t come.'”
While Semple said she understands why people in Eugene don’t feel safe downtown, she thinks the dog ban unfairly targets homeless people.
“From a human rights standpoint, I cannot endorse this idea," she said. "If you don’t have a home, you can’t leave your dog, so that effectively makes it impossible for you to participate in downtown activities.”
Even though she voted against the ordinance, Semple fought to ensure the council included some protections for the homeless. For example, the dog ban exempts an area around the Dining Room, a nonprofit that serves free lunches four times a week, so that people with dogs can go there. The Dining Room has crates outside for guests to leave their animals while they eat.
That’s also the case at Portland's Outside In, which offers medical help and other aid to the homeless. Outside In provides kennels for animals in its front courtyard.
Outside In's executive director, Kathy Oliver, said closing off an area to homeless people with dogs denies them access to services that can be the first step toward getting off the streets for good.
Ben, the homeless man in downtown Portland, said that something like the Eugene dog ban would definitely keep him and Precious away.
“I wouldn’t even be hanging around in downtown," he said. "I would go somewhere where I can have her.”