Santa Ana River homeless find comfort and protection in their pets; fear losing them

In Features
( Sarah Wolstoncroft / Daily Titan )

At the corner of the parking lot under the big “A” at Angel Stadium, dusty tarps and battered tents cling to a chain-link fence along the Santa Ana River. Dozens of homeless people sift through piles of tattered belongings as cars roar past on the 57 freeway.

A small group of people huddle together with smiles on their tired faces, their eyes all fixed on the same thing—three little puppies playing together in the dirt. Although they were playing, the dogs also showed signs of aggression.

“You haven’t even seen the half of it,” said Blue, a 33-year-old homeless woman.

The 6-week-old puppies—River, Lila and Shadow—are “the only consistent thing in my unpredictable life,” Blue said, who has been living on the streets of Orange County for five years.

An estimated 10 to 25 percent of homeless people in the United States have pets, according to the 2015 Feeding Pets of the Homeless report.

( Sarah Wolstoncroft / Daily Titan )

Dogs are important to many of the dozens of people who live along the river. They provide emotional support and in some cases, even physical security.

Blue said that Molly, the mother of the three puppies, is “very protective” of her tent.

“If we are inside and somebody is outside, she lets us know they’re outside before they even get there,” Blue said. “She will escort them out to make sure they’re gone before she comes back.”

Some people living along the river will sift through piles of belongings and steal supplies like bicycle parts and tent poles, said Casper, a 22-year-old man who was living along the river since February. He said dogs provide protection against thieves and violence.

He doesn’t have a dog, but he’s formed a special connection with his friend’s dog named Bella.

“She can sense when I’m angry,” Casper said. “She is an amazing girl. She relieves a lot of stress for me when we play with the tennis ball. You got to love them and show them that you care because the dogs will do the same for you.”

The dogs also need to eat, which can be an issue for homeless people who also are trying to feed themselves. But that doesn’t seem to be a problem.

“For a lot of these people, that’s all that they have. Most of them feed their animals before they even eat,” said Sondra Berg, the administrative manager for community outreach for Orange County Animal Control.

One fear the homeless live with is losing their pets.

Officers came to their camp recently and took some of the dogs, Casper said.

If pets are running loose or have bitten a human being, the officers can pick them up and take them to the animal shelter, Berg said.

In general, however, dogs that belong to the homeless are “generally taken care of,” she said.

Twenty-eight-year-old Andre Rodriguez keeps his dog Roxy by his side when he begs for change near the 57 freeway in Orange. A friend gave him the German shepard mix as a puppy and they’ve spent every day of the last five years together.

“My dog gives me more than just company. She gives me her love, and she gives me happiness when I have none,” Rodriguez said. “She loves me even when I can’t feed her sometimes,” he said as his dirt-covered hands stroked Roxy’s head.

“She’s my light in all this darkness,” Rodriguez said. “I wouldn’t trade her for anything in this world.”

Kaleb Stewart and Ashlyn Ramirez contributed to this article.

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