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Keeping companions fed; Pets of the Homeless tries to respond to the reality of pet ownership by people who live on the streets

Kevin Schojan's closest companion is his dog, Buddy, a shepherd-husky mix, and the two have made a lot of friends on their jaunts along the Elmwood Strip.

But Schojan can have trouble saving enough to buy food for Buddy, so he's thankful for a program that passes out pet food through two agencies that serve the poor and homeless.

"Times have been tough," Schojan said after stopping by Friends of Night People on a recent Friday night to pick up a plastic baggie filled with dry dog food. "It lasts long enough for me to get the funds together to buy him his own food."

While there are good intentions behind the new campaign to help the homeless get food for their pets, it also raises some questions, like whether it's good for a pet to be raised by someone who doesn't have consistent access to shelter, pet food and vet care.

Pets of the Homeless says it is trying to respond to the reality of pet ownership by people who live on the streets. Critics worry about a homeless pet's quality of life.

"Absolutely, it's a bad situation for the pet. You don't go out and get another dog, you don't go out and get another cat, if this is the situation," said Henry J. Sontag Jr., president of Buffalo Companion Animal Network, which operates a Pet Food Pantry at 37 Chandler St.

The program is part of the Pets of the Homeless network and began in Western New York when Fisher's Friends, a dog day care service in Snyder, started handing out donated pet food in October.

Owner Emily Brady said she hopes to win grants to set up free veterinary clinics and persuade agencies that serve the homeless to let them bring in pets on cold winter nights.

For the homeless, or those like Schojan who have a place to live but struggle to make ends meet, a cat or dog can be a lifeline and source of companionship.

Many would rather give up their own meal than see their pet go without, Brady said.

"I found that very sad and heartwarming at the same time," she said.

Brady first heard about Pets of the Homeless at a pet expo she attended last spring in Phoenix with Katy Fry Swatland, marketing director at Fisher's Friends.

The group, based in Nevada, had a display at the expo. Brady took a brochure, which shows a photo of a disheveled man sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk and nuzzling a dog that sits in his lap.

This wasn't an issue Brady had thought about before, but she researched it more and decided she wanted her business to help these pets however it could.

"This particular issue hadn't gotten any light shined on it," Brady said.

It's hard to pin down how many pets are owned by the homeless.

Pets of the Homeless cites a statistic that between 5 and 10 percent of the homeless own a pet.

A few homeless people keep a pet because they believe the animal's presence may help in their panhandling efforts, said Genevieve Frederick, but they don't represent the majority.

Frederick, who founded Pets of the Homeless in 2006, set up the group to distribute donations of cat and dog food through locally based chapters in this country and Canada.

Pets of the Homeless also raises money to provide grants to pay for free vet clinics.

Since 2008, the group's chapters have distributed 155 tons of pet food through homeless shelters, food banks and soup kitchens and set up free vet clinics to treat 2,800 pets, Frederick said.

"It's inevitable that people who are homeless are going to keep pets, so let's do what we can to keep our communities safe and keep them healthy," she said.

Fisher's Friends contacted Frederick and offered to become the organization's donation center in this area.

The dog day care and grooming center, at 2171 Kensington Ave. in Snyder, collects dry and canned cat and dog food.

Employees pack one- to three-day supplies of food into plastic baggies and deliver them to Friends of Night People and Hearts for the Homeless, two agencies that serve the needy.

Over two deliveries, in October and earlier this month, Fisher's Friends has dropped off 60 cans of dog food, 567 pounds of dry dog food, 72.5 pounds of dry cat food and 17.5 pounds of dog treats, Brady said.

Before beginning the program, Brady spent a busy Monday night working the intake desk at Friends of Night People's Hudson Street center.

She asked the 300 or so people who came in that night if they owned a pet, and about 30 said they owned at least one.

"The population that I see utilizing it, it's people who are homeless and people living on a fixed income," said Joseph S. Heary, executive director of Friends of Night People. "There's a woman here who is homeless who rescued a dog [from the City of Buffalo Animal Shelter]. Obviously, it is benefiting her to have that companion."

Schojan stopped by Friends of Night People on a recent Friday to pick up a baggie of dog food for his beloved Buddy.

"He's the best dog in the universe," said Schojan, 46. "We're known up and down the Strip. He's one of the few dogs they let into the bars."

Schojan has an apartment near Elmwood Avenue and Anderson Place, but he lives on Social Security disability insurance so he doesn't have a lot of extra money for pet food.

"I can't bear to see my dog go hungry," he said. "[Buddy] brings a twinkle to my eye. I try to keep a positive attitude, but he helps me."

Over at another table, Ellison Walker ate dinner and talked about his new companion, a kitten he calls Daisy.

The 35-year-old lives in a Niagara Street apartment but also lives off his SSI checks.

He said he buys food for Daisy at Family Dollar, but the free food from Friends of Night People will help him stretch his money even further.

"This cat changed my life," Walker said. "She gave me something to live for, pretty much."

Hearts for the Homeless passes out its bags of food through its mobile soup kitchen, which parks on Ellicott Street underneath the Central Library.

Brady, of Fisher's Friends, said she hopes eventually to persuade the Buffalo City Mission and the other facilities to accept pets on the coldest "Code Blue" nights of the year, perhaps by winning a grant to buy animal crates to hold the pets.

Neither Friends of Night People nor Hearts for the Homeless allows pets. Animals also aren't allowed at the City Mission, which isn't working with Fisher's Friends at this point.

The shelter can't accept pets because of concerns related to health and safe food preparation, said Aubrey Calhoun, a mission spokeswoman.

With many of these pets forced to live out on the streets, a program that appears to some to enable this living arrangement is bound to raise questions.

Is it best for a pet to live with owners -- no matter how conscientious -- who have trouble taking care of their own basic needs, let along the pet's needs?

Homeownership is no guarantee that people will treat their pets well, said Gina Browning, a spokeswoman for the SPCA Serving Erie County.

"Look at what we see every day in homes -- animals in homes are abused," she said.

Ensuring the pet has a good quality of life and consistent access to food, protection from the elements and medical care are the important issues, she said. But if the pet is taken away from a homeless owner only to be put down, that's not necessarily better, Browning said.

To donate, bring dry or canned cat or dog food (it can be a bag that is already opened) to Fisher's Friends, 2171 Kensington Ave., Amherst, between 7:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Call 839-5703 for more information.