Travis Towne and Stacie Stinger had fallen on hard times.
The couple left Spokane after Towne lost his job and moved to his hometown of Seattle, but things continued to go south.
“It’s way more expensive than we thought,” Stinger said. “To save that much money is not feasible when you’re going day to day, week to week.”
To make it, they stayed in their car, working day labor jobs that left Towne with ripped up feet from wearing too-small boots. Today, between Towne’s job at Real Change and Stinger’s position at the Metropolitan Improvement District, the couple has secured housing.
It was a difficult period, marked by instability, injury and managing Towne’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis. Through it all, they had each other and one other constant — their Chihuahua mix Abby.
Abby is a sweet, chocolate-brown dog who teeters alongside her owners as they walk the sidewalks of Pioneer Square.
Towne and Stinger got her several years ago from a neighbor when she was just a puppy. At one point after they lost their housing, Abby went to stay with friends, but ultimately Towne and Stinger couldn’t stand the way she looked in photos her temporary family sent.
Towne and Stinger have heard the questions, which are little more than thinly veiled criticisms — how can you be homeless with your dog? How can people experiencing homelessness, already struggling to care for themselves, also make sure that their pets are OK?
For Towne and Stinger, like so many others, those people are asking the wrong questions. It’s not about whether Abby would have a decent life staying with them during tough spells, because they knew that she would. There were days when she ate more than her humans did.
The question was whether or not Towne and Stinger could be without her.
“So, if you have children, you would leave them somewhere and let them pine away and not go get them?” Towne asked.
Creating a more humane society: Photographer Gemina Garland-Lewis captures the bond between homeless people and their pets
Nashville advocate helps homeless pets and their caretakers
The human-animal bond is a profound connection. Animals provide comfort and companionship through a nonjudgmental relationship that is unlike anything another human can offer. It is little wonder, then, that animals have become teammates in medical care and even the legal fields, providing a calming presence and a bit of joy in the most difficult of times.
Leslie Stewart is a professor at Idaho State University who studies the human-animal bond and serves on the Human Animal Bond Advisory Board for Pet Partners, a nonprofit organization that facilitates visits between people in medical care and trained human and therapy dog teams.
Animals can be helpful in a therapeutic setting because they respond to how humans think, feel and behave. They act almost like a mirror, reflecting a person’s reality back to them even when they can’t or don’t want to see it themselves.
“Animals are congruent in a way that we could never be because they are not bound by the rules of social interactions that we are as human beings,” Stewart said.
Stewart has done work with female survivors of sexual assault with her 9-year-old therapy dog Sophie. Sophie is a German shepherd and very literal — she will only execute prompts or commands delivered assertively, with a “period at the end of a statement.”
That made her a perfect partner for working with women who struggled with appropriate and healthy assertiveness in a relationship, Stewart said. Some women thought that if she was too direct with Sophie, the dog would be angry with her, wouldn’t like her or wouldn’t trust her anymore.
“There were tears and frustration right there in the moment,” Stewart said. “We were able to process right here, right now what’s happening.”
Stewart is a trained professional counseling clinician who works to integrate animals into her practice. In other settings, therapy dogs and animals are often there to provide a bit of comfort.
When Homer the labradoodle walks into a room at the Bailey-Boushay House, an inpatient long-term care facility and outpatient daily health program for people living with HIV/AIDS, she puts people at ease, said Homer’s human partner, Laurel Thom.
Thom will stop by outside of a patient’s door, poke her head in, show the person Homer and ask if they want a visit. What happens next is mostly determined by the patient. Some want Homer to jump up on the bed and cuddle with them, while others feel more comfortable watching her do tricks across the room.
“Her name is often part of the visit,” Thom said. “Is she named for Homer Simpson? Is she named for Homer, Alaska, is she named for Homer the poet?”
In fact, she’s named Homer because she’s a home run, Thom said.
Thom downplays her own role in the work. The way she describes it, she’s mostly there to facilitate Homer’s job, making the first connection with a person and then guiding them on Homer’s likes and dislikes. Treats are great, but don’t tease her with one, Thom advises. Pet the dog, but nicely.
Homer’s calm demeanor makes her excellent for this kind of work, and Thom is aware of and respects her preferences. She mostly visits with older people who want a quiet dog to lie on the bed with them. That was where she got her start, visiting with Thom’s grandmother.
The therapy dog work can be as much for the human partner as it is for the people receiving the visit.
Scott Vande Zande suffered a stroke 15 years ago. When he retired, he wanted to give back to people who struggled with strokes and their aftermath, so he and his dog Hollie worked together to get through therapy dog training.
“It’s pretty special,” Vande Zande said.
Hollie has since passed away, but Vande Zande and his golden retriever Ginger are still on the job. It gives him an opportunity to help the patients and gives Ginger a chance to hang out with as many people as she wants. She goes everywhere with Vande Zande.
“If she doesn’t see enough people, she doesn’t want to leave,” he said.
First, the pair go to see the nurses — “They have a very difficult job,” Vande Zande said — and then to hang out with the patients. A lot of people have dogs at home, and when they see one come into the hospital it lifts their spirits.
Dogs like Homer, Hollie and Ginger have gone through rigorous training to get their certifications. They have to know how to behave around sensitive hospital equipment and fragile people, how to ignore distractions and how to leave potentially toxic medicines or food alone in a hospital facility.
But dogs don’t need that level of training to be therapeutic to their owners, Stewart said.
“I had an older dog, a wonderful dog, who was never going to be suitable to be a regular therapy dog,” Stewart said. But the relationship was therapeutic to Stewart and taught her a lot about patience and unconditional commitment, she said.
That’s the kind of relationship that Gemina Garland-Lewis documents in her documentary photography show “Everything to Me,” currently on offer at the 18th &Union Arts Space in the Central District.
“Everything to Me” features Garland-Lewis’ work photographing homeless people with their pets. The black-and-white images offer an intimate look into the lives of people struggling on the streets of Seattle and the loving bond that helps them make it through.
Garland-Lewis began the project four years ago when she saw a lengthy line that formed outside of the Union Gospel Mission on a Saturday afternoon, full of people and their furry friends. Homeless and low-income people queued for a visit with volunteers with the Doney Coe Pet Clinic, an organization that provides free veterinary care.
Some people may have simply seen a good deed; Garland-Lewis saw an opportunity. On top of her photography work, Garland-Lewis is a researcher at the University of Washington’s Center for One Health Research, a special project where staff investigate the links between human health, animal health and their shared environments.
The center also hosts clinics where doctors and veterinarians work together to provide health care to homeless humans and their pets at the same time.
Chronicling the stories of homeless people and their animals in words and pictures is an important part of helping housed people recognize their humanity and step beyond stereotypes, Garland-Lewis said.
“I believe in the power of data and I believe in the power of visual storytelling,” she said. “I think those can work together.”
Raw data does little to combat common stereotypes about homelessness and the people who experience it, such as the idea that it’s inappropriate for homeless people to have pets or that they should simply accept shelter regardless. Those attitudes make it harder to get people inside.
Focusing on putting only people in shelter misses the point, Garland-Lewis said.
“People will not leave their animals,” Garland-Lewis said. “Whatever your opinion is, that’s the reality.”
The city of Seattle has begun to address this issue. The city opened its first “enhanced shelter,” which allows people to bring their animals, store their possessions and stay with their partners, in 2017. Mayor Jenny Durkan’s new budget seeks to expand the number of facilities that offer enhanced shelter as information floods in from the Navigation Team, a mix of police officers and case workers, that more people would accept offers of shelter if they met those needs.
As for everyday attitudes, Towne and Stinger find that having Abby with them changes the way people perceive them in a positive way.
“She brings smiles to everybody,” Stinger said. “We walk down the street and see a lot of sad and not-so-happy people, but we walk by with Abby and instantly they want to talk with us.”
She’s pretty good for sales, too.
“I had a lady come back to the corner one day and buy a paper for $10 because she said she’s a sucker for Chihuahuas,” Towne said.
“I was trying to figure out why she was calling me a Chihuahua but ...” he said, trailing off into laughter.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
Check out the full Oct. 17 - 23 issue.
Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice. Since 1994 our award-winning weekly newspaper has provided an immediate employment opportunity for people who are homeless and low income. Learn more about Real Change.