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Downtown Dogs

The wall is thick with language, cultural and religious differences, in addition to issues of mental illness. Some owners don’t “believe” in spaying. Others take pride in their dog’s aggression. Weise favors outreach over preachy reform. “I try to set an example,” she says.“Through the dogs, I can promote social change.” She bets her own money on it through housing deposits, rides to appointments —even paying the salaries of homeless people she employs at Modernica.

Finding Safe Havens
 Some ofWeise’s clients rehabilitate dogs. They do so even when the comfort they bring to a dog’s life is missing from their own. Jo Barker,who lives in South Central, has recently undertaken “back-to-back rescues” and facilitated her first adoption— a family who took in a sweet Pit Bull that Barker rescued from a violent neighbor. Barker doesn’t go looking for them. “The good dogs always find me,” she says. And they are never just dogs. They are the “coffee hound,” the “pogo stick,” the “Dachshund who saved himself...”

Her favorite part of rescue is the first few days,“watching them crash into relaxation,” then “seeing the refreshment growing slowly into trust and watching them open up…shedding the bad skin and learning new things.” They’re grateful, she feels, “for being given a softer touch in life.”Then there’s the “pure noisy happiness when ‘mommy’ comes home.”

But in 2003, Barker, then 42, had no home. “My whole family’s world came crashing down,” is how she describes her pitch into homelessness.Her son moved in with his girlfriend and Barker’s four dogs stayed in the yard of an acquaintance.“ They were the first thing I saw in the morning and the last thing I saw at night before going back to the shelters,” she says.

She lived this way for three years,moving from shelter to motel to the experimental Dome Village in downtown LA. She was able to keep two of her “kids” (Dekota, a Shepherd-Chow, and Daytona, a Pit Bull), while Weise—whom Goodwill Industries contacted on Barker’s behalf —took the others.When Daytona later died of leukemia, Barker was crushed, and Dekota felt the loss as well. Barker insists Dekota cried, showing her attachment to her lost companion by adopting Daytona’s habit of overturning her food bowl with her nose.

Then Boxer came roaring into their lives. The handsome but headstrong young Pit Bull had spent his life chained to a tree, taunted by cranks. Unable to keep him, his owners gave him to Barker. At the same time, Dome Village was closing its doors, although there wasn’t much to close. According to Barker, the 250- square-foot fiberglass domes weren’t even affixed to the ground. “Living there was real close to living on the streets,with all the druggies and molesters—knowing anybody could put a fist through the walls, pop open the door and climb through the window,” she says. But it was a roof. Now residents would be back on the streets, or in Section 8 housing— provided they abandoned their dogs. It began with “staff telling the residents they had to give up their dogs for housing,” Barker says.

Just as Barker was taking on the belligerent Boxer, she began a fight to help residents keep their dogs. She dedicated herself to legal research, unearthing documents which showed that under the Fair Housing Act, a homeless person’s dog can be considered an “emotional support” service animal. Such dogs are permitted in Section 8 and other federally assisted housing programs. The sticking point was finding landlords who would willingly accept them. The battle between staff and dog owners raged for months, until the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority was called in. LAHSA’s plan was to post the dogs on “Craig’s List” for fostering. Panicked dog owners redoubled their efforts, Barker says, and a flurry of letters were mailed in protest.

After three months of contention, an agreement was finally reached.Residents would not have to choose between keeping their dogs, or a roof over their heads.

Sheila Pell is a journalist and contributor to The Bark.

Photography by Douglas Hill

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