Homeless with Pets

This is the story of Julie Brown

“What’s going to happen to Oliver if I die out here ?”

Julie asked this question multiple times.  She was concerned, deeply concerned about Oliver's well-being.  It took a while for me to appreciate that this was not simply the concern of a very attached human care-giver, but was the very realistic inquiry of someone gravely unwell who had been living in her car for 9 months.

Eventually I said I would take responsibility for Oliver; while I could not keep him I would ensure found Oliver found a good home. Julie, like many homeless  people with companion animals equated entry to the shelter system with euthanasia.

It was only after Julie's death that I discovered Julie's concerns had some foundation.  Oliver was over six and considered a senior cat whom the local humane society did not want to take in to adopt out.  Yet another lesson for me in listening and not making assumptions.  Homelessness does not equate to not knowing something or being wrong. 

In the summer Julie was finally awarded the welfare benefits that would have enabled her to rent accommodation.  However there were problems finding accommodation for her and for Oliver.  She refused to abandon the cat she described as her reason for being.  She had rescued him from a stray lifestyle of grazing on refuse at a local food market.  Like many homeless people with animal companions Julie refused to trade her animal partner for accommodation and services. 

Julie remained in her car, through the Fall of 2014, entering the very cold and rainy final weeks of the year sitting outside in her car that leaked, sitting upright and in acute pain.  She had stopped attending the local women’s resource center, was no longer able to drive around and perform her daily tasks.  

After 8 weeks of acute pain she agreed to be taken from her car to hospital by ambulance. Before she left she placed Oliver in his nylon carrier, leaving him in her car with an extra blanket around the carrier against the cold, and fully expecting to be back that evening.

That was Tuesday afternoon, and later that evening Homeless With Pets was called for ideas as to care for Oliver.  There really only one idea and that was to ask Julie to let us have a key to her car to take Oliver from the car and look after him for her.

It was shocking to see Julie in that ER bed.  Whisper thin, her skin walnut brown and desiccated, with such spindly limbs. It was incredible that she had the strength to hold herself upright in that car, all those weeks. Our conversation was an unusual one, as it could only be under those circumstances. She asked, “I don’t know what to do. What should I do about Oliver ?” the only response was to ask her to give me responsibility for Oliver. This was given and in return a promise extracted that he could not be adopted out or taken to ‘the pound’. Julie considered that she would be coming out to get him, the time frame however moved on as we talked from tomorrow to a few days, to perhaps 5-6.

Did Julie feel relief that Oliver was going to be taken care of ? Did Julie know we were having a conversation about her death ? I felt bad asking her to give me the only being that linked her so strongly to the world. Did she take on board my comments about resting in the hospital and at least trying to take some comfort from being able to be in a bed, in clean sheets, to be able to lie down and not to be sitting up in a damp, cold car and to know that Oliver would also be safe and warm and well-fed?

A case worker suggested Julie would have taken comfort from the meeting and my assumption of responsibility for Oliver and perhaps was able to begin to let go knowing Oliver was to be cared for. But that's unknowable and a matter only for speculation.  What is known is that it would not have been possible without making a relationship and spending time with Julie, winning her trust and making that promise ten months before.

Oliver was rescued for a second time in his life, this time, from his little navy blue nylon cat carrier deep into the night of Tuesday 23rd December. Rescued from the home he had known with Julie in that car for 18 months.  It was dark, damp and cold. He was transferred into a clean carrier with clean blanket and moved to a quiet place over night.

Over the next weeks which followed the only times that Oliver stopped yowling when anyone was near him was when he was being driven around in a car, to the vets, to his foster home and then after four weeks to his new adoptive home.  After 3 months he emerged from his hiding places to be glimpsed during daylight hours.  After nine months he has made friends with his feline house mate.  Much patience on the part of his new human companion.

Julie passed on the morning of January 2nd, just making it into the New Year 2015.  So this story is also a memorial.