The South Lake Animal League, a no-kill animal shelter in Groveland, is the most recent to team up with the national organization Pets of the Homeless to address the growing need. The league is working with local business owners to collect dog and cat food to distribute to food pantries and soup kitchens in Lake and parts of Orange.
“In caring for the homeless man’s dog they’re caring for the homeless man,” league president Doreen Barker said.
Teena Patel, owner of a dog-training facility in east Orange County called the University of Doglando, agrees. For years, Patel pulled over to give pet food to homeless people she spotted walking around with their dogs on the east end of the county. She came across Russell, who’s better known on the streets as Santa Claus, and his dog, Misdemeanor.
“Just ’cause you’re homeless don’t mean you cannot have a pup,” Russell, who did not provide a last name, said in a video interview with Patel. Pointing to the chunky pit-bull mix next to his feet, Russell said. “Look at this puppy. He ain’t missed a meal. And he’ll never miss one.”
Patel’s nonprofit Doglando Foundation works to round up pet food to deliver to the homeless. Meanwhile, pet stores and veterinarian clinics from Leesburg to Windermere have volunteered to serve as dropoff sites for the South Lake Animal League.
Many people who have lost their jobs and homes in this tough economy refuse to give up pets because they consider them family members, said Barker, who wants to keep pets with their owners and out of animal shelters where they can be euthanized.
The Nevada-based Pets of the Homeless and its partners have raised more than 112 tons of food to help the homeless feed their animals since the nonprofit launched in 2008, founder and president Genevieve Frederick said. Depending on where they are in the country, an estimated 5 to 25 percent of the homeless have a pet, she said.
“I put myself in their shoes,” Frederick said. “I couldn’t imagine taking [my pets] to a shelter or leaving them behind.”
The homeless aren’t the only ones struggling to feed the animals, said Irene O’Malley, executive director of Lake Cares Food Pantry in Mount Dora. Disabled and elderly residents living on tight incomes also request pet food at the pantry, which will receive kibble collected by the animal league.
“We get them [requests] more frequently than we ever expected,” O’Malley said.