For photos of the Fully Tummy Project in action, click this link to be redirected to Doglando Foundation photo gallery.
Near the playground set out front of the Global Outreach Center in Bithlo, a line is forming. People are patiently waiting their turn for the volunteers who staff the Full Tummy Project to help them out.
Some have come here for a meal for themselves – the Global Outreach Center, a nonprofit organization in the town of Bithlo, just east of Orlando, holds a regular free meal here for the community. Though many of the people who attend are underprivileged – low income, no income or homeless – anyone is welcome to join.
More recently, their pets have been invited to join, too. For the past year and a half, the Full Tummy Project, a program run by a local nonprofit organization called the Doglando Foundation, has set up outside the Global Outreach Center every Thursday night at 6:30. The group's volunteers invite those who've come for dinner to take a meal for their pets as well.
Every week, people take them up on the offer. They patiently wait their turn for volunteers to take some information from them – How many pets? What kind? How much food do they need? Do they need anything else to help care for their pet? – and send them on their way with bags, boxes and cans of food to take home to the dogs and cats that are just as much a part of the family as their children.
So much so, says Denise Zaldivar, president of the Doglando Foundation, a nonprofit that exists to help people become more responsible dog owners, that some of them will use what little resources they have to keep their pets fed as best they can – even if that means sacrificing something they might need for themselves.
"This lady last week, actually, she said, 'I cannot afford to keep my dog anymore, but I cannot just give it away because it's going to end up in the shelter and it's probably going to be euthanized,'" Zaldivar says. "These people have a true love for their pets. Some of them don't have children, so these are their children. They will feed their pets before they feed themselves."
And often, they have to. While soup kitchens, shelters and churches feed people who are hungry, there are very few places people can go to get food for their animals – even fewer that will offer them a place to sleep or affordable veterinary care.
This became obvious to Teena Patel, a board member of the Doglando Foundation and owner of the University of Doglando dog training and education facility in East Orlando, a couple of years ago. When she'd drive around East Orlando running errands, she couldn't help but notice that a lot of homeless people she saw had dogs, and she wondered how they managed to care for them. She says she ran into a homeless man with his pit-mix behind a gas station one day, and she struck up a conversation. He was carrying an incredibly heavy-looking backpack, and she asked what was in it.
"He had a rolled-up 30 pound bag of dog food in there," says Patel, who was so struck by the sight that she started collecting dog food in a donation box at the University of Doglando. She started to bring bags of food with her when she was out and about. "I would drive all around Orlando, from UCF area to Bithlo … and give it to the homeless that owned dogs," she says.
On Thanksgiving 2011, she gathered a group of volunteers to hold an event where low-income people could come pick up free dog food. It was such a success that Patel suggested that the Doglando Foundation organize a program that would distribute free food for pets on a weekly basis – a sort of canine soup kitchen. In 2012, the Doglando Foundation adopted the project, named it the Full Tummy Project and set about making connections with people who needed their help.
At first, Zaldivar says, people were reluctant: "We would show up to the Outreach Center and no one knew who we were," she recalls. "It took a few months for the community to accept us – they were scared of our intentions."
Now many of the volunteers are on a first-name basis with the people they serve. More than 150 families are registered for the program. "And we have new families every week," she says.
As homelessness has risen in cities and towns across the nation, so has the number of homeless people who own pets. It's estimated that there are 3.5 million homeless people in the United States, and their reasons for being homeless vary – mental health problems and substance abuse contribute to homelessness, but as the economy continues to plod along, a growing number of the homeless are former working-class people who've lost their jobs, then their homes. Many of them owned pets before they lost everything.
"Between 5 to 10 percent of homeless people have dogs or cats, and in some [rural] areas of the country, it's as high as 24 percent," says Renee Lowry, executive director of Pets of the Homeless, a national organization that helps provide food, medical care and assistance to homeless people who need help caring for their animals. According to Pets of the Homeless, there are no hard statistics on homeless pet owners – the department of Housing and Urban Development doesn't require organizations seeking funds for homeless programs to track that information – but anecdotally, the problem is big enough that Pets of the Homeless now has partners in all regions of the country, as well as a handful in Canada. There are 443 veterinary offices, pet stores and community centers that act as collection sites for food donated to help the homeless feed their pets, and more than 300 soup kitchens, community organizations and nonprofits work to distribute the food to those who need it. (The University of Doglando is one of the collection sites listed on the Pets of the Homeless website, petsofthehomeless.org.)
Most shelters, soup kitchens and service organizations, though, do not offer resources for animals. It's not because they don't care – it's all they can do to help the influx of homeless people who come through their doors daily. Most probably don't even realize how many people they feed might need additional help feeding or housing a pet.
So, people with pets who find themselves with no place to go have to make some tough decisions. A lot of the time, they give their dogs or cats up to shelters, many of which reported a dramatic influx of animals when the housing market first crashed and the economy plummeted. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimated in 2009 that approximately 63 percent of people living in the United States kept pets – with one in every 171 houses at risk of foreclosure during that time, the organization figured that between 500,000 to 1 million animals were going to be affected by the gasping economy. Many of those animals would be at risk of ending up in overburdened animal shelters, the ASPCA speculated.
Though the economy has stabilized somewhat, a Hunger and Homelessness Survey released by the U.S. Conference of Mayors in late 2012 indicated that homelessness is on the rise, based on requests for emergency assistance. The survey figured that 46.2 million Americans, or 15 percent of the population, lives in poverty.
"I just spoke to a woman yesterday who said she's homeless and she lost her job because of illness, then she lost her home," Lowry says. "The face of homelessness is different now than what it used to be, and anybody could be homeless tomorrow. And what are people going to do? Are they going to give up their pets? For some people, that's like giving up their children."
And for a lot of pets that are given up, the future is pretty bleak.
"If it comes down to somebody giving up their pet," Lowry says, "and say it's an older pet – if they take it to a shelter, there's a chance that dog or cat isn't going to be adopted. It could be, but a lot of people want a young dog that's going to live a long time. A lot of those [homeless] pets that end up in the shelter are going to be euthanized."
Rather than abandon the one thing they have left that they love to an uncertain future, Lowry says, people will sacrifice their own comfort – they'll live in tents in the woods, they'll sleep on people's couches, they'll sleep in their cars.
"I know that it's an issue and sometimes people will stay out in the woods rather than a shelter because they want to stay with their pets," says Muffett Robinson, director of communications and community relations for the Coalition for the Homeless in Orlando. She says that, like most shelters, the coalition's shelter does not have the resources to accept pets. Occasionally, she says, if someone with a pet arrives and needs help, volunteers may try to find someone who can temporarily house it. "We'll try to call around and help people, but there aren't really many resources out there right now," she says.
But perhaps there should be – one of the biggest reasons women tend to stay in homes with abusive partners, rather than leave and seek help, Robinson says, is because they do not want to leave their pets behind. It's a big enough concern that Harbor House of Central Florida, a shelter for victims of domestic violence, opened a Paws for Peace Kennel in 2012. According to the organization's statistics, nearly half of all domestic abuse survivors say they delayed seeking help because they didn't have a safe place for their dogs or cats to go. Paws for Peace allows its residents to bring their pets with them – the pets must live in the kennel but the residents have full access to them. It's the only facility of its kind in Central Florida.
A couple of years ago, says Timothy McKinney, executive vice president of United Global Outreach, he wouldn't have really considered feeding homeless pets an integral part of what his organization did. He said he knew of people who were homeless and had pets – he'd read a study that came out of UCF in 2004 that said that one big reason that a lot of people living in homeless camps in the woods said they didn't participate in social-services programs was because they were afraid to leave their dogs alone. "They don't want to leave their pets," he says. "If they're left alone, they could be injured or stolen."
So when the Doglando Foundation approached him last year about handing out free pet food at his organization's weekly meals, he was more than willing to bring them on board. Since the Full Tummy Project started coming out, he says, he's seen that the help they offer goes beyond just handing out food for dogs and cats. They've also begun to add some basic medical care and assistance to their menu of services – for instance, a boy approached the table with a chocolate lab puppy he was watching for a friend. A Full Tummy Project volunteer took his information, played with the puppy, gave him some food and clipped the dog's nails. They're also helping people who have intact pets get them spayed or neutered. And in the process, McKinney says, they're helping people whose lives have come apart at the seams help pull things back together.
"I've seen the Full Tummy Project take a guy who lived in a shell of a camper in the woods with his old dog, who was all mangy-looking, they got him looking like a puppy again," McKinney says. "Turns out, he had fleas, and the person who owned him was also flea-infested because the dog was."
That's when McKinney realized just how important animals were to building a healthier community. McKinney says Bithlo's reputation is that "everyone has six pit bulls" that they don't take care of – programs like the Full Tummy Project help people provide better care for their animals, thus helping the community become a safer, cleaner place. One of United Global Outreach's goals is to help rebuild a sense of community in this troubled East Orlando hamlet, which has long been written off as a "poor" town with nothing going for it. McKinney's organization wants to transform Bithlo by bringing people the services they need to improve their lives, and in turn improve the place where they live. "More than the services to just dogs and cats," McKinney says, the Full Tummy Project "has been building relationships with the people of Bithlo. The physical thing they do with dogs and cats is great, but the human aspect that they bring to the pet owners is essential."
Recently, McKinney says, United Global Outreach purchased an acre of land next to its current facility where the organization hopes to expand its services. They're creating what he calls the "Transformation Village," where the goal is to bring all kinds of medical, social and community services to the people. The fact that so many people have been coming to the Full Tummy Project for help gave McKinney an idea.
"We included in the plans a dog spa and a dog wash and a kennel, so there'd be a place for pets to be taken care of so the person could not have to have the fear of leaving that pet unattended and having it harmed or stolen [while taking care of their own needs]," he says. "I know that has been a barrier for people accepting help."
And to McKinney, any and all barriers need to be brought down so that the people of Bithlo can transform themselves – and their town. "Everything about a healthy community needs to be in place for Bithlo to have a chance to succeed," he says. "It's not just about the free food, it's about the community."