In a city where 8.4 million call home, more than 52,000 people sleep in a homeless shelter and at least 3,200 additional people sleep on the streets of New York City. For many, the only emotional support, stability and unconditional love they receive comes from the loyal pets that stay close to them during their hardships. But this bond isn’t always easy. Fortunately there is help.
At the intersection of human and animal welfare you will find a New York City-based grassroots organization known as Collide. Operating on the Lower East Side at 205 East 7th Street in Manhattan, a devoted team of volunteers work to serve the transient community of New York City, specifically offering free services for companion animals of the homeless in the form of food, clothing, licensing and medical care.
The nonprofit was founded by Heidi Powers in 2010, an active member of Grafitti church, the home of Collide as well as a long-time Lower East Side fixture known for providing impressive social services within the community – everything from ESL classes to computer labs to a clothing closet (free clothing to those in need and free business attire for those reentering the work force) and free lunches in front of Tompkins Square Park on Saturday afternoons.
Based on the principles of her faith, Collide is inspired by love and motivated in its belief to help and serve the underserved. Although affiliated with a church, the relationships with Collide’s clients are non-denominational and all are welcome, with its main purpose being to improve the quality of life of both person and pet.
“The trust our clients place in us to help them keep their pets healthy is something that means everything to me,” say Jeff Latzer, one of about a dozen volunteers who make up Collide. Latzer’s role requires him to work not only with pets but their human counterparts as well, serving meals, working fundraisers and gathering pet food for clients to leave with after visits. He considers his love for animals and understanding of the importance of human-pet relationships to be the very thing that allows both he and Collide to connect with their clients.
“I know how therapeutic pets can be, from a psychological and spiritual perspective,” he says. “Particularly for people facing extreme adversity, that can be an incredibly important, even life-sustaining relationship.”
Working to meet the needs of the city’s homeless population, there are more than 1,000 soup kitchens and food pantries in NYC, Collide being the only one providing space welcoming the companion animals of their clients.
The organization will feed families together, picnic-style on the sidewalks in front of the Graffiti church. And while Collide operates on a shoestring budget, they still are able to provide warm meals for people and high-quality food for the pets. Plus, there is a volunteer vet who provides check-ups, vaccinations and medicine, along with a spay/neuter clinic, which the Humane Society of NYC has helped provide. Besides providing these everyday resources, Collide also provides assistance in unpredictable situations.
For instance, the organization took preventative measures at the first mention of the catastrophic blizzard that was expected to hit New York City this past January. Collide opened emergency boarding services to meet the needs of the community — housing dogs, cats and pet rats — which allowed their human counterparts to seek housing indoors. This sort of assistance helps the pet-owning homeless population tremendously, as when these inclement weather conditions occur, they are often faced with a dilemma: either sleep on the street or give up the pet, the former being what many end up choosing more often than not.
In addition to food, supplies and medical care, Collide also assists with licensing pets, an often-overlooked yet very important detail in keeping these families together.
While it is fairly (if not completely) uncommon that a more “traditional” citizen be stopped by law enforcement, demanding proof of ownership of their pet, Collide’s clients are constantly being put in this position, as harassment of homeless individuals is typically more common.
“Our clients face this every week, so the photo IDs, tags and vaccinations make sure that they can prove ownership, as well as get their pet back if they ever get arrested,” says Latzer.
Additionally, clients sometimes find themselves on the wrong end of an act “kindness” brought on by a concerned citizen. “We get a call from a grief-stricken client who tells us that when they woke up that morning, the dog leash connecting them to their companion had been cut, with only a crudely written letter left behind to the effect of ‘We gave your dog a better life,'” Latzer says, when asked to recall the most challenging aspect of his duties. “Nothing could be more traumatic [from either a dog or human perspective] than to have the proudly co-dependent relationship destroyed while you slept together on a park bench.”
The services provided by Collide work to help both person and pet thrive to the best of their ability, and in doing so, work to change the perception of the public’s view regarding stereotypes surrounding the homeless. While many passers-by see only a dog and a person living together on a city street, what often goes unrealized is that these animals are companions to an incredibly marginalized group of people. The relationship formed between the two is often enough to keep the other going forward, together, one day at a time. Anyone who has ever experienced the bond that forms between human and pet can attest that it is one with immeasurable value, for both parties alike.
Main image via Flickr/Giuseppe Cerone