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Two years ago Journey Ramsey was delivering clothes and food to members of Maine’s homeless community when she noticed a man with his dog standing near the Portland Preble Street outreach center on a very cold winter day.
As she watched, Ramsey said a woman whom she knew to be homeless and living in her car with her own dog, approached the man and offered him one of her extra dog coats because she had noticed his dog was shivering in the cold temperatures.
“This woman was one of the first people I had helped,” Ramsey said. “She was homeless and living in her car because she had two dogs and would not abandon them to go live in a shelter and here she was giving what little she had to another pet in need.”
That simple act of kindness is what gave Ramsey the idea to start Backpacks for Homeless Dogs, a program that fills backpacks with pet food, treats, coats, leashes, collars and other items to distribute to homeless individuals or others in need who have pets. So far, Ramsey estimates close to 200 packs have been given out.
Ramsey is on the board of directors for the Maine Homeless Veterans Alliance, which provides assistance and other services to homeless veterans in Maine, and that group has made the Backpacks for Homeless Dogs part of their ongoing community outreach efforts. Despite the name though, the project is aimed at all pets, not just dogs.
According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, as of January 2019, there were an estimated 2,106 people experiencing homelessness on any given day in Maine. Of those, 116 were listed as veterans. There is no data on how many have pets.
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Since starting the backpack program two years ago, Ramsey has helped scores of homeless veterans and others in need who would rather sacrifice their own health and comfort than see their pets suffer.
And it’s not just for dogs. There is the cat who lives with his homeless person whom Ramsey would frequently see, and an elderly woman who was at the end of the month with little money.
“I was once contacted about a woman who could not afford both food for herself and cat litter for her cat,” Ramsey said. “This is a woman in her 70s having to make that kind of decision [and] no one should have to be thinking like that.”
Ramsey brought in Kevin Nicholson, chairman and founding member of the Maine Homeless Veterans Alliance, who was already making regular forays out into the community to bring items like personal hygiene products or sleeping bags to the homeless when Backpacks for Homeless Dogs began. To help out, Nicholson started carrying the stocked backpacks and giving them out as well to give out to members of the homeless community.
“Most of these homeless folks had [their pets] before they were homeless or whatever circumstance made them homeless,” Nicholson said. “A lot of them are not willing to give up their best friends and it’s tragic when that does happen. If they can get enough food and supplies to keep their pets, they should be able to.”
Ramsey also helps formerly homeless individuals with pets transition into apartments or other housing by supplying pet food and other items for several months as they get their bearings and learn how to budget their resources.
Pets, Ramsey said, are crucial to the emotional and physical wellbeing of members of the homeless community and others in need. Animals don’t judge and often provide the only physical contact the individual experiences on a day to day basis, she said.
“These pets are their best friends, their protectors and often the only ‘person’ they can talk to,” Ramsey said. “Having a pet is very important.”
But when the pandemic hit, it changed how Ramsey and her organization worked with the homeless and their pets. Maintaining the mandated social distancing of six feet between people and quarantine issues in her own home have meant changing how they do things.
In the early days of the pandemic, Ramsey said she and Nichols continued to keep stocked backpacks in their vehicles and came across a homeless person with a pet, they could give them the pack. But after the stay-at-home order was issued, they had to back off from that and turn it into more of a rapid response process in which word of the person in need comes to them, rather than the other way around.
“If I were to get a call about a homeless veteran or other person with a pet in need, one of us would make certain to get them some pet stuff,” Ramsey said. “We did just get a call and Kevin brought an elderly vet some pet food.”
Nicholson is always ready to respond to a homeless person in need and has continued going out to dispense needed items to that population during the pandemic.
“I’m being safe and maintaining social distancing,” Nicholson said. “And it’s not just homeless vets, our help is for everyone who is homeless and we are targeting everyone we can.”
Ramsey said the project has always enjoyed some level of support from the community, but ever since Backpacks for Homeless Dogs appeared on several news broadcasts over the last two weeks, that support has exceeded Ramsey’s expectations with donations of pet food, supplies, gift cards and cash coming in daily. In fact, her living room is so crammed full of items she can’t remember the last time she was able to use it for anything other than a staging area.
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Moving forward, Ramsey plans to identify a distribution site for the pet supplies. She is currently working to find a site and developing the guidelines for people to access it. That information, in addition to the times and dates the site will be open, will be posted on the groups Facebook page once they are finalized.
But in the meantime, she encourages anyone in need, or who knows of a pet owner in need to contact her and she will make sure the items get to that person.
“What Journey is doing is absolutely needed,” Nicholson said. “She’s not only helping the homeless people with dogs, but there are a lot of people in need that go directly to her for food [and] it is quite the thing she started.”
To donate to Backpacks for Homeless Dogs, you can go to the Maine Homeless Veterans Alliance website at www.mainehva.org or to the programs social media page on Facebook. Ramsey said people can also email firstname.lastname@example.org .