As more people lose their homes and turn to the streets, volunteers at the Downtown Dog Rescue are stepping up to house and care for their pets.
There are a dozen or so large kennels at the Downtown Dog Rescue headquarters in South Gate. In each of them is a different dog — the kind that always looks like they’re smiling. It’s peaceful here in the hour before sunset. Potted succulents and statues of Buddha dot the patio in front. Classical music plays overhead as wind chimes sound nearby.
Lori Weise, president and founder of Downtown Dog Rescue, is preparing to serve dinner the way she does every evening around this time. “We always have music playing,” she says. “Music or talk radio. Otherwise, it gets too quiet here.”
Weise is tall, even-keeled and present. Through Downtown Dog Rescue, Weise has, for more than 20 years, helped countless homeless people and very low-income pet owners push back against the threat of losing their animals.
Downtown Dog Rescue is a cushion for the people at rock bottom, and the pets who keep them company there. They help with vet bills and license fees and boarding for court dates. They partner with the Inner City Law Center to offer legal advice and letters that stave off evictions, placate landlords and keep people and their pets under one roof. Through a shelter intervention program at the South Los Angeles Animal Shelter, Downtown Dog Rescue has prevented more than 12,000 pets from entering the packed, noisy kennels there in the last five years. Similar programs, such as Home Dog LA at the North Central Animal Shelter also operate with a high level of success.
Weise knows her way around Skid Row. She was there in the early aughts, when, at dawn, the sidewalks would be upended, tents overturned by police giving tickets, taking tents and waking up the people inside. “Police Chief Bratton made everybody move by 6 a.m. I’d go down 6th Street and call them to wake them up,” Weise says.
She knows the people who now keep booties on their dogs or carry them in strollers to keep them from stepping on debris or hunting diseased rats. “It’s all these things we know about, but you don’t think about,” she says.
It’s worth noting that in the past five years, homelessness in Los Angeles has surged by 34%. According to county data from 2018, at any given time, more than 53,000 people lack permanent and stable housing.
“There are just no words for it,” Weise says. “I’ve been doing this since 1996, so I’ve always seen homeless camps, but not like this. I don’t know how it got so out of hand. Some people say this is a political thing. It isn’t a political thing. It’s a humanitarian crisis, in my opinion.”
The crisis on Skid Row plays out largely behind tarps and zippered front doors. Tents press up against each other outside the flower markets and special event showrooms where vendors peddle chandeliers and flatware for weddings and bar mitzvahs. Inside each one, a person bides their time. A little poodle scampers up onto the cot where her owner sits. A chihuahua drags its leash while trailing behind an emaciated woman in a short dress. She’s clutching a roll of paper towels and fishing through a sequined purse for a cigarette.
A man in a wheelchair owns the two playful pit bulls — one caramel, one black-and-white — tethered nearby on their leashes. He goes by Shot Man. “That’s one of my hustles,” he says. “When I’m broke, I sell shots. I get the cheapest liquor I can find. I go to Ralph’s for the cups. One hundred and fifty-three-ounce cups for $3 [and] $2 shots.”
“There are just no words for it. I’ve been doing this since 1996, so I’ve always seen homeless camps, but not like this. I don’t know how it got so out of hand. Some people say this is a political thing. It isn’t a political thing. It’s a humanitarian crisis, in my opinion.”
Lori Weise, president and founder of Downtown Dog Rescue
Shot Man offers up a nearby Igloo cooler to sit on. A water jug filled with urine sits nearby. His tent is open, revealing an old hot plate and a rumpled “Frozen” sleeping bag. “It’s a long story about dogs and me,” Shot Man says, laughing as he pets one of his dogs. “I was born in a house. And the only thing that was there with my mom was my dog, King, the German Shepherd. I’m a dog lover. I love animals, period, though.”
Shot Man shifts in his chair. The left arm is broken and he struggles to attach it. “I had cats recently. Me and my old lady broke up, so the cat ended up homeless as well,” Shot Man says, shaking his head. “A domestic cat, sitting in the middle of the street, thinking he’s on a living room couch or something. Car came along and ran old Smokey over.”
The dogs Shot Man has with him are actually his friend’s, but he’s had them for four days and plans on keeping them as long as necessary.
“My friend loves these dogs,” he says. “I’m claiming them because I love dogs, and they love me too.”
If he was to name the dogs, he’d name the caramel one Champ, “Because he is one,” Shot Man says. “He’s strong and I feed him well … Once I have a dog or a pet, that becomes part of me, and I’m focused on everything I need to be focused on to make sure that dog is very comfortable and loved. I have to get another blanket to put down because I don’t want them on the ground.”
“Ain’t that right, kisses?” he says, making smooching sounds toward Champ.
“I always feel like it’s none of my business,” Weise says, in regard to whether a person experiencing homelessness should have a pet. “Unless they are being violent with the dog, or they are breaking some kind of law, or they’re not in their right mind — they’re walking in and out of traffic they’re so high, or their brain is just not functioning and they can’t protect themselves — we’re not going to let them do that to a dog.”
“If someone says to me, ‘This is my world. This is my baby. I raised this dog,’ it’s like, OK. How are we going to keep you guys together? What do you need today? Do you just need food? You need to get a dog license? Or you don’t really need anything. You just need to talk to somebody,” Weise says.
Weise and Downtown Dog Rescue work with several professionals to manage the services they provide to pet owners in need. Through case managers, counselors and probation officers, she arranges everything from vet care to boarding while a pet owner is sick or in court. She and her colleagues are constantly faced with gut-wrenching decisions about what is best for both canine and human welfare.
“Once I have a dog or a pet, that becomes part of me, and I’m focused on everything I need to be focused on to make sure that dog is very comfortable and loved. I have to get another blanket to put down because I don’t want them on the ground.”
Shot Man, a homeless man living on Skid Row
She brings out Luigi, a baby-faced pit bull. He nervously cowers near her, tail tucked. “His owner, she loved him. Took him to the dog beach. Love, love, loved this dog. I had many sleepless nights trying to decide if it was the right thing to keep him,” she says before switching to a baby voice, looking Luigi in the eyes, “Huh, ‘Uig?’”
Luigi’s former owner is young. She was a foster child who had lived through multiple assaults. She got Luigi for protection. The two of them drove cross-country, staying in multiple states. Shortly after she arrived in Los Angeles, she was arrested for drug possession and prostitution. A volunteer attorney gathered Luigi from her apartment. Downtown Dog Rescue took him in while she was in treatment. She was getting healthy. She moved into a sober living home. She was able to take Luigi back.
Then, Weise says, “The wheels fell off.” She stopped taking her medication. She violated her probation. “We were begging, let’s keep them together. Because of him. Then, she did it again. This last time he came to us in August, he literally slept all day every day for a week. So, I’m like, ‘You know, this is really wrong.’ We just can’t do it anymore.”
Weise leans down to Luigi, still timidly curled beside her. “I know if she came through the gate right now, he would literally jump six feet in the air to kiss her,” she says.
When Weise first started her non-profit work, people often asked her why she was wasting time on animals when people needed help. “I always felt like … I don’t know what to say. I really felt ashamed in the beginning,” she says. “But I’m an animal person. I just love pets. Animals are so easy. If this was the only thing we had to solve, we would have no homelessness. It’s so much more involved than just solving the pet thing. I’m not going to solve this problem. You’re not going to solve this problem. This problem is not solvable unless the USA really embraces mental health care.”
Weise can’t stand to spend much time in L.A. city shelters, where an estimated 20% of pet surrenders are housing-related. “I just can’t,” she says. “I’ve worked with dogs for so long. I hear the barks and I just hear what they’re saying. It’s a level of PTSD. I can relate. People who knew me when I started and then, now — I’m a very different person. It takes a lot out of you.”
“If this was the only thing we had to solve, we would have no homelessness. It’s so much more involved than just solving the pet thing. I’m not going to solve this problem. You’re not going to solve this problem. This problem is not solvable unless the USA really embraces mental health care.”
Lori Weise, president and founder of Downtown Dog Rescue
Back on Skid Row, Shot Man pulls back his tank top to reveal a device protruding from his skin. “I have a heart problem. Pacemaker.”
Champ runs into the tent and wiggles around gleefully on the “Frozen” sleeping bag. “Just have your way boy!” Shot Man laughs. “Have your way! Get it right! Get it right!”
“If dogs love you, and you show the love to them, they’ll protect you with their lives,” Shot Man says. “That’s loyalty. I wish I could find that in a person and give it in return. That’s why a lot of people tend to turn to pets. It’s not like having a relationship with a human being, and then having love and lost it. Going through the ups and downs and changes in life, it’s not like that.”
Shot Man reaches out a hand to shake. “My hand is dirty. But you can wash yours.”
It’s no secret that homelessness in Los Angeles has soared in the last five years, deeply impacting our city and daily lives. While solutions for the homeless epidemic are still up in the air, one thing is certain: we won’t solve the problem without working together. This is why L.A. Taco and Los Angeleno have partnered to share untold stories behind these issues in a month-long series that both shines a light on covert ugly actions from our fellow Angelenos and gives a voice to the voiceless.