A dogged life on the road: Pet-toting 'crusties' find haven at city nonprofit
It's a restless life for a young traveler nicknamed Mouse and her dog Ruckus, a black shepherdterrier mix. They're used to hitchhiking, hopping freights, sleeping in the woods and bartering or panhandling for provisions.
These so-called crusties - a loose confederacy of young people with nomadic existences - find their way to the city in milder months. Many are accompanied by pets, usually dogs, and shack up at places like Tompkins Square Park.
"She's the most constant thing in my life," said Mouse, 24, who preferred to not reveal her real name. "I've traveled many miles; I've covered a lot of distance over the last three years. One of the only things that remains exactly the same is Ruckus."
John Welch, program director of Streetwork Project: Lower East Side, estimates 300 wandering youth hit the city each year, and at least two out of every three come with canine companions.
"There's a real deep, caring relationship between them and their animals," said Welch, whose program is part of Safe Horizon on Essex St., a drop-in center for homeless youth.
Mouse says Ruckus is one of the most calming aspects of her existence.
"I feel like home is wherever my dog is," she said. "Home is wherever I sit down." Keeping Ruckus healthy and her coat shiny despite many nights of bedding down on asphalt requires a combination of her own ingenuity and assistance from individuals dedicated to helping with the pets of transient young people.
At Streetwork, Welch and his staff coordinate free onsite monthly vet-care clinics through connections with the Mayor's Alliance for Animals and Collide NYC, a volunteer group that feeds crusties and their pets Wednesday evenings in front of Graffiti Church in Alphabet City. Streetwork also provides veterinary advice and fostering assistance.
Crusties are allowed to bring their pets to Streetwork when they come for services, which include needle exchange, hot meals, medical and psychiatric treatment and hot showers.
"I'm blessed, but some days it rains," said Emily, 27, a crustie originally from Long Beach, L.I. "For some ... it's a struggle to get off horrible drugs. But we're all about finding a salad and drinking a juice. We really care about our dogs and lives."
Emily travels with two dogs, Torino and Marley. She returns to New York once a year and says she has been to 49 states and six countries in nine years.
"I can definitely say it's hard to stop traveling. But I've never found it a struggle to take care of my dogs," Emily said. "We often have so much dog food that we can't carry it. I end up giving it to animal shelters."
From tractor and supply stores, she gets reduced prices on dry food in tattered bags. She also scores samples from pet stores. She says she's been able to negotiate free or low-cost veterinary checkups wherever she travels.
Torino and Marley also can be an advantage when hitchhiking.
"People pick you up because of the dogs," said Emily. "Dog people are good people, because they like dogs more than people."
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