Helping homeless dogs and people in Denver
In 1991, my hospital social work job bordered a grungy crime infested Denver neighborhood. Strolling around at lunch was risky so I reserved noon hours for errands. I drove to Petsmart because my three happy hounds were low on kibble and snacks. At a red light by Triangle Park, a local denizen for homeless people scrubby dogs milled among the crowd. Since I just stocked up, I handed dog food to a woman wearing tattered clothes and smudge-stained glasses.
“Thanks, this is a big help,” she said. “We feed the dogs from our food.”
“That’s kind of you to share,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“How do you find food?” I asked surveying the bleak houses and gutted streets.
Stringy-haired Pat gestured towards a church and frowned. “You listen to a sermon but the dinner is free. We deal with it for the food. Another church serves lunch.”
“I’ll bring more dog food soon,” I said. Then I noticed a multi-colored cat tied to a bench with a flimsy piece of string. “And cat food.”
“That’s Tasha, she’s mine.”
I glanced at my watch. “Time to go but I’ll be back.”
That started my six month relationship with a group of Denver’s cast off citizens who hung around Triangle Park.
Earlier promises of a hectic, fulfilling social work job fell flat at the hospital. Most days I read the now defunct Rocky Mountain News in the bathroom, toyed with the blood pressure machines, or called out of state friends. The tedium drained me so I diverted my attention to Pat and the crowd at Triangle Park. If the hospital didn’t need me, maybe the homeless did.
I asked how she became homeless in middle age. Substance abuse didn’t seem a factor.
“I hurt my back as a nurse’s aide,” she said as she munched on a day old donut, compliments of a Safeway manager who dropped them off every morning on his way to work. “Social services are scarce in Phoenix so I hitchhiked to Denver. I knew people here.”
“Couldn’t you qualify for Workmen’s Compensation?”
“It didn’t work out that way,” Pat said.
Pat muttered a nebulous response then changed the subject to her vagabond life. Cheap motel rooms lasted until her money dried up. Then she stayed with friends and acquaintances and eventually wore out her welcome. Out of options, she slept on the streets. Like homeless people everywhere, Pat stored her belongings in bags and lugged them with her in a shopping cart.
“What about shelters?” I asked. A New York City law required that overnight shelter be provided to all homeless who wanted a bed but no such protection existed in Denver. The city was more sympathetic to homeless families with children, seniors, and disabled. Able-bodied adults had few options. Limited public transportation made access to an open bed daunting. Most homeless didn’t own cars. If Pat was interested, I would’ve helped her but she always shook off my offers.
“Shelters aren’t safe,” Pat said. “I’d rather sleep outside.”
“That’s dangerous,” I said. Triangle Park abutted the high crime neighborhood of Five Points. “Homeless people are often targets of abuse. Watch yourself.”
“We sleep together. I have the dogs for protection,” Pat said, gesturing towards her pets.
Three neighborhood strays – two shaggy dogs, Baby Bear and Poncho, and Tasha the cat – were hardly protection from local goons. The pets were lovable but mild.
As an animal shelter volunteer, the intact condition of the animals concerned me. Unaltered puppies and kittens would soon be on the way. I had to get them fixed as soon as I felt comfortable broaching the subject with Pat.
I visited Triangle Park often and delivered dog and cat food. From my employer, I pilfered medical supplies such as band-aids and aspirin. Pharmaceutical sales reps plied doctors with free lunches to persuade them to write prescriptions for their company’s products. If no one was around, I wrapped left over sandwiches and brought them to TrianglePark.
Snowflakes trickled down late one afternoon in the MileHighCity. Cardboard gray skies suggested a big one would soon wallop the city. I stopped by with lunch for Pat and her friends. A pharmaceutical rep was overly generous with turkey sandwiches, potato and macaroni salads, and vanilla cookies for desert.
As she wolfed down a wholesome lunch, Pat steered me towards an abusive neighbor, a young thug with a long rap sheet who lived in a decrepit house not far from Triangle Park. The brute collected stray dogs, some with recently delivered puppies, and according to Pat, beat them when he staggered home drunk.
“He leaves for work around 8:00 a.m.,” Pat said. “Please help those dogs. I have nowhere to keep them.”
“When does he get home?” I asked, checking my watch. It was 2:30 p.m.
“I heard at 6:00 p.m.”
“Where are the dogs?” I asked.
“In a wobbly shack in the side yard,” Pat said. “You can see if from the street. Want me to show you?”
“I think I can find it.”
“Watch it, he’s dangerous,” Pat said.
Jeez, what was I getting myself into, I thought.
I cruised down his block, careful because the streets were slick with snow. An outhouse type structure sat in his yard. As rolled down my window, I heard tiny yelps. On a whim, I hopped over the fence, opened the door and found a brown hairy dog with eight squirming puppies stuffed inside. Mom’s friendly manners relieved some anxiety. If she was overly protective, I was in deep trouble. She could’ve ripped my hand off. Sweating profusely despite the cold, I cradled two puppies at a time in my arms then placed them in my car, all the while praying the terminator didn’t come home or that a nosy neighbor didn’t alert the police. I was stealing from private property. Finally, I rushed back for mom and threw a leash around her neck. I led her into the back seat and nearly collapsed behind the wheel. I couldn’t peel away because of the snow. Once I was about four or five blocks away, I stopped panting. I wiped my brow with my sleeve. Slowly, I drove mom and puppies to a shelter about 30 miles away, neglecting to say I stole them from a creep. That could potentially embroil the shelter in a legal battle with the owner on the slim chance he found his brood there. Instead, I made up a whopper. I found them in a garbage dump. No one asked why I was in a trash heap nor did I volunteer much information. It only mattered the animals were safe. I hoped he would not collect dogs again. By the way, I called in sick that day.
Bill, Pat’s greasy boyfriend who she met on the street, was sometimes at her side. Other times he was nowhere to be found. Pat said he was searching for supplies they needed. He was probably stealing or panhandling. I tried liking him but saw him as a leech. I didn’t trust him either. Spending time around Triangle Park, however, gave me a purpose, even if I had to sometimes interact with Bill.
That fall, the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus hosted a seminar on pet overpopulation, which I attended. So did KMGH reporter Julie Hayden. At the end, I introduced myself to the pretty young blonde.
“Would you be interested in a story about homeless people and their pets?” I asked.
“I tried before but I could never get anyone to cooperate,” Julie said.
“I befriended homeless people with pets at TrianglePark,” I said. “Would you interview them?”
“Give me a call and we’ll come out.”
The next day, I tracked down Pat. I sold her on the idea of talking to Julie Hayden. Bill hedged but finally backed down. He seemed more concerned about getting a cold brew than his girlfriend talking to a reporter.
“I’ll call Julie and tell her you said yes.”
Several days later, a television crew showed up at Triangle Park. The segment aired during the lunch hour news and Pat’s life was never the same. Neither was mine.
Calls flooded the KMGH switchboard. Concerned citizens offered free dog and cat food. Some wanted to adopt the animals. A few wanted to sweep Pat and her pets off the streets with free or low-cost housing.
Viewers who recognized Triangle Park drove by with winter clothing for Pat, blankets, bags of pet food, hot coffee, sandwiches, and moral support. Bill stayed out of sight but later on helped himself to the goodies.
All the publicity caught the attention of the Rocky Mountain News. The paper dispatched a reporter to interview Pat. A prominent colored picture of rosy-cheeked Pat, bundled up in a parka, hat, scarf, and gloves in a makeshift shelter on Larimer Street, surrounded by her three pets, appeared on the front page of the Rocky Mountain News soon after. Public reaction was swift and tender. Even more Good Samaritans located Pat’s campsite and supplied her with goods and offers of help. Pat’s stubborn streak persisted and she wrote to the Rocky Mountain News on 11/1/91, “If we go into a home somewhere, we might be warm but we wouldn’t have as much freedom. Out here, we’re free.”
Free yet frigid. Mother Nature brutalized the Mile High city with temperatures plummeting into the single digits. Winter became even more treacherous when snow dumped on the streets and roads. I had a heck of a hard time commuting from Boulder to Denver in those wintry conditions. I dreaded to think how Pat and her pets survived in a flimsy cardboard box.
Pat’s rugged life turned around when former news reporter Wendy Bergen stepped in. Once a rising star on KCNC, Bergen left in disgrace after staging a pit-bull fight and then lying about it. Her promising journalism career was in tatters. As part of her plea, Bergen performed community service with Step 13, a multi-service center for substance abusers. Step 13 operated a series of apartment buildings so its clients lived in affordable housing while they underwent treatment. Bergen convinced the agency to rent an apartment to Pat at a reduced rate. Obviously the icy temperatures and blustery winds prodded Pat into accepting the new digs.
Along with her pets, Pat moved into a $220 a month buffet apartment on Pearl Street, near the state capitol on Colfax Avenue.
Pat wrote to the editor of the Rocky Mountain News and thanked everyone involved. I felt slighted. She never mentioned me or Phyllis Simms, another woman who read about Pat’s plight in the Rocky Mountain News. Her soft spot for animals lured her into Pat’s crazy life. On lunch hours, Phyllis drove to Triangle Park and handed out pet food, sandwiches, toiletries, and sometimes small amounts of cash. She also gave Pat her home telephone number.
Phyllis and Pat nurtured a relationship, although it was mostly one-sided. Phyllis chipped in for Pat’s first month’s rent. I covered the second month. Pat said she’d be OK afterwards. She would look for a job.
“Now seems like a good time to talk about spaying and neutering the animals,” I said to Phyllis during one of our many talks.
“Good idea,” Phyllis said. “Do you need money?”
“I called Harrison Memorial, the animal hospital for low income people. If I paid for the vaccinations they’d cover the operations.”
“That’s great,” Phyllis said. “When will you talk to her?”
“Tomorrow. I hope Bill isn’t around. Men sometimes don’t like the idea of male dogs being neutered. They sometimes associate it with their own castration.”
“Let me know how it goes.”
Harrison Memorial, a top notch animal hospital that served only low-income pet owners, vaccinated the pets on 11/5/91. On 12/7 the pets were fixed. No matter where Pat ended up, at least there would be no puppies or kittens.
Since this would be Pat’s first holiday indoors in quite some time, I wanted to make it festive and joyful. I drove Pat and her dogs to Petsmart for photos with Santa. Tasha the cat stayed home. Scrooge Bill decided to hang out with his beer buddies so I didn’t see him that day.
Pat chuckled when Baby Bear and Poncho posed with Santa.
“Aren’t they cute?” Pat said, as Santa held one dog on each side.
“This Christmas will be warm and toasty,” I said. “Let’s buy them a stocking when we’re done. They deserve a treat. We’ll get a kitty toy for Tasha.”
“How can I ever thank you?”
“I’m glad to see you’re off the streets and into a home,” I said.
Phyllis chipped in and bought a small artificial tree and decorations. On a lunch hour the pair trimmed the tree together. We both treated Pat to several new outfits and other essentials, like shampoo, soap, underwear, etc. Pat had plenty of leftover dog and cat food from the generous Denver residents who responded to the press coverage. Pat’s apartment, although not very homey, had a touch of holiday warmth.
“What’re doing on Christmas day?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Pat said. “Bill said we should eat somewhere.”
“There are places in Denver that serve free dinners. Want me to give you a list?” I asked.
“We’ll probably hang around Triangle Park. Bill will find us a place to eat.”
“Merry Christmas and have a nice holiday,” I said, gently hugging her. “After New Year’s we need to talk about the rent. I can’t afford to pay any more. My budget is tight.”
“Yeah, OK. I understand.”
“What happened with Social Security Disability?” I asked.
“I didn’t apply.”
“Have you looked for a job?”
“No,” she said.
Waiting for the car engine to warm up, I mulled over thoughts about Pat. She had more benefits and gifts heaped upon her than most homeless people. Why hadn’t she at least sought employment? Not even part-time? I made connections with Denver’s homeless providers. Social workers would help because of me. In spite of her fall from grace, Wendy Bergen still had enough clout to keep Pat at Step 13 for a while. Honestly, though, Pat seemed content in a cardboard heap on Larimer Street than in a heated apartment. Were we shoving our values down her throat?
As winter stopped choking Denver and sunshine fell on our shoulders, Pat called me with a decision. “I’m moving out,” she said. “Down to the Platte River with Bill. He built us a shack.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’ll need my stuff back.” I stored several of her bags in my storage locker. Every tenant in our apartment complex had a storage unit and I offered Pat free space.
“When can we meet?”
“Thursday afternoon,” I said. “What about the animals?”
“They’re coming with me.”
In all my years of volunteer work and paid social service work, I’d always helped people get off the street. This would be the first time I ever moved a formerly homeless person back onto the street. I felt totally off balance.
I drove down an isolated alley near the Platte River, across abandoned railroad tracks and there Pat waited for me. We hauled her suitcases down a rutted embankment to her shack among about a dozen others. It even had a cracked beat up phone attached to the wall. Poncho and Baby Bear were chained outside next to a make-shift dog house. Grubby blankets and food bowls were available. Tasha the cat rested on a pillow in the shack. Bill wasn’t around and I didn’t care.
I hugged Pat. “I guess this is it.” I slipped a twenty dollar bill into her hand. “Call me if an emergency comes up.” I hoped it wouldn’t.
“Thanks for all your help.”
“Be safe. Life can be tough out here.” I patted both dogs, blew a kiss towards the cat and left. I fretted about leaving my car too long in such a marginal area. Vandals might find an old Subaru appealing. Nothing was amiss however. I pulled away and never saw Pat again.
Several years later, I called Phyllis. The homeless area that skirted the Platte River had grown since we talked but the city bulldozed it. The motley collection of shacks and tents would’ve been visible from the new Colorado Rockies baseball stadium. Again Pat became the media darling and the city found her new lodging. Phyllis lost track of Pat and the next time I called her phone number was disconnected. I always hoped that Pat regained her confidence to become self sufficient but it seems I’ll never know. I could’ve ignored Pat and the dogs that autumn day in 1991 but the experience gave me insight into the complicated lives of homeless human beings. I’m glad I cared enough to get involved.
I became disabled on 1/6/94 from a pedestrian car accident. The loss of income plunged me into poverty. Maybe one day if I’m that lady on the streets with my dogs. I hope someone will care enough to help me.