You probably drive past homeless people every day. They stand on the corner and at the stoplight, “flying a sign,” asking for a bit a change, food or even a job. Sometimes we roll down the window with a handout. Sometimes we ignore them and just drive by.
Now consider the recent rains and flooding in Central Texas: Where do homeless people go during torrential, once-in-a-generation level rainstorms? When downtown floods and streets, gutters and underpasses turn into rivers, who takes them in to stay dry? And after the rains, when the ground is soaked, where do homeless people lay their sleeping bags, tents and bits of cardboard to stay dry?
It makes me think: How can we drive past homeless people on the street and yet stop traffic to rescue a homeless dog?
“You identify one of the problems present in our culture,” says Alan Graham, CEO of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, an Austin nonprofit that provides support and a community for Austin homeless people. “I love animals, but we should at least afford the same care for all that God has created.”
Let’s be clear: No one expects you to take in a homeless person you don’t know. Some do, but I understand that can be an unreasonable expectation. Neither are you expected to take in a homeless dog, though this past weekend hundreds lined up around the block at the Town Lake Animal Center to do just that. Even though dogs can get pretty dangerous and messy, too ….
My point is more about people’s perceptions of which is more deserving of our compassion and help. I’m talking about that moment when you spot the person or dog on the street, open to the elements. Why are we more likely to feel sorry for a dog than a person?
That’s what one British father asked after his 4-year-old son Harrison had been diagnosed with a terminal disease with no known cure and very little research being done to find one. Earlier this year The Telegraph told a story about the dad, Alex Smith, who created a series of ads to ask for donations to his son’s charity but used a photo of a dog to lure donors.
“Alex watched the money pouring in, with a mixture of awe and despair, wondering how people can give so generously to animal charities, when research which could lead to a cure for boys like Harrison fails to attract funds. ‘I really wondered why anyone would suddenly donate to a dog’s home when children are dying,’ he says.”
Are we really rescuing more animals than people? According to the most recent point-in-time count by the ECHO Coalition, there are about 600 people living unsheltered on the streets, in gutters and alleys, under over passes and in the woods. About 100 of those are U.S. veterans.
After the Town Lake Animal Center flooded, Austin Pets Alive reported that 80 of its sheltered dogs were fostered or adopted on Memorial Day. And while Austin Pets Alive doesn’t accept found dogs and cats from the public, it has taken in about 130 lost animals to relieve the open-intake shelters who are housing them until they are reunited with their owners.
As for the lines around the block to help the hundreds of unsheltered people in Austin, says Graham of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, “We get a lot of support so no complaints there. Still, for some reason, animals trump our homeless peeps. We should be challenged to ask why.”
Monica Maldonado Williams is the director of GivingCity Austin, a nonprofit, online magazine on a mission to increase philanthropy and social engagement.