More and more homeless New Yorkers pick dogs over shelters
Joseph Perez sits beside a battered shopping cart filled with street-collectables. Seated on the cart is his most precious possession, a prince with a bone named Shorty.
The round-bellied corai-Jack Russell terrier mix travels with his own possessions. There are chew toys and more than a dozen various- sized stuffed animals propped up beside him.
Tucked into a corner of the cart is a small purple cup for donations. On the front hangs a sign that says, "Can you please help us out today. Thank you for your kindness. Have a good day. Woof-Woof."
Perez, 53, is among the small number of the roughly 3,000 homeless population who would rather keep a pet than have a roof over their heads.
"The folks on the street are mainly interested in surviving. They don't think having a pet to care for is a very good survival strategy," says Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless. "The majority, in order to get shelter or housing have to give the pets up, at least for some period of time and that's a very hard thing to do."
For Perez, who has a vveathered but handsome face, that's unthinkable. He and his late wife, Christina, found the abandoned dog on 110th St. and Lexington Ave. about six years ago.
"He was tied to the lamppost for three days. He was real skinny with a big head," Perez said.
The couple quickly bonded with Shorty.
"He would run down the street when he saw her. He'd be so happy," says Perez.
Christina died from hepatitis and AIDS in February.
"She was doing so well, too," the heartbroken husband said.
Turning to Shorty he asks: "Where's mama?" Shorty raises his neck to the sky and barks sorrowfully. "They never forget," he said.
Choosing to be a pet owner may ease the loneliness of the streets, and help to elicit donations, but ownership also presents challenges.
Sandra DeFeo, executive director of the Humane Society of New York, said she sees an increase in people admitting that they can't afford to take care of their pets.
" I see people with all their belongings in their car give me their animal," she said. "It's sad."
Aside from the Humane Society, private vets, like the one Shorty sees, often cut their fees for the homeless or donate their services.
"We're not here to judge. We're here to help and we'll do everything in our means to help," said DeFeo.
"We are involved with animals of people who are homeless. And some of them are really well loved," she continued. "Is it the home we ideally want for them? There are good scenarios and sometimes they aren't the best."