In a city known for sob stories, Dawn Baresin’s is one of the saddest.
She says she ran away from home in San Francisco 16 years ago, at age 12. She’s a reformed heroin addict. Her husband is in prison. She’s pregnant with another man’s child. (She doesn’t know whose.) She lives in an abandoned building in Brooklyn. She makes her living on the streets, surviving off the kindness of others.
Yet people often throw her $5 bills where they pass other homeless by. She has a camera phone she checks her voicemail on. She says she’s traveled to London and Paris, paying for half the ticket with money she made panhandling. (Her grandmother paid for the other half.)
And she’d like you to meet Tabitha, her 10-year-old dog.
Tabitha, a droopy-faced boxer with a salt-and-pepper muzzle, sits right beside Baresin in front of Whole Foods in Union Square several nights a week, her brown eyes pleading with pedestrians as her owner stares at the sidewalk. For Baresin, Tabitha isn’t just a best friend – she’s also her co-worker. For the homeless, having a pet can be a ticket to opening hearts – and wallets.
That’s not to say Baresin doesn’t care about her dog. Tabitha, who Baresin says she found abandoned under a bridge in Harlem eight years ago, goes wherever her owner goes. Baresin says they’ve traveled between New York and California several times, hitchhiking and hopping trains across the country.
“I got a really good vet who sees her for free,” Baresin says. Tabitha’s check-up last month came back clean, she says, apart from some small hematomas in her ears. “She still acts like a puppy, so I take that as a good sign.” Baresin’s grateful for the free care. Like many homeless people, she doesn’t want others to know how much money she makes. “As it is, people give me enough flak, calling me lazy. I survive,” she says.
But healthy homeless dogs are more common than one might suspect, according to Anita Edison of the ASPCA. Several years ago, she says, the ASPCA teamed up with the Bowery Rescue Mission to offer veterinary care to homeless pet owners across Manhattan, and found many animals “were up to date on vaccines and were, in fact, very healthy.”
“Often times, pets are a source of comfort and protection for a homeless person, and the ones that some of us at the ASPCA have personally come across [are] provided for and, in some instances, in better shape than their human counterparts,” Edison says.
Nelson, a 52-year-old man who says he’s been on the street for three years, agrees. His closest companion is a Maine Coon cat wearing a green sweater named Sylvester, who Nelson says he found as a kitten in the woods upstate eight years ago.
“That’s my only buddy right there,” he says, pointing to Sylvester – who’s sleeping on a pet bed with containers of Fancy Feast, kibble and clean water surrounding him. Nelson sits on a battered milk crate. “He doesn’t get on my nerves. People get on my nerves.”
Of course, there are downsides to homeless people having pets – the greatest being where they can’t go. Animals aren’t allowed in New York City’s homeless shelters.
Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst for Coalition for the Homeless, believes the ban is mostly for public health reasons. When homeless people with pets seek shelter, he says, his organization – a non-profit that runs outreach and support programs – has made arrangements with animal shelters and individuals to care for the pets.
“We try to make as many accommodations with those folks as we can,” he says. “There’s no question, it’s a challenge.”
But not all homeless people want pets. Dave L., a 28-year-old Long Island native, says he is a heroin user who became addicted while serving in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan in 2001. He says he had a dog as a boy – but not anymore.
“I see these people with puppies out here,” he says, forming cigarettes with a plastic dime-store cigarette maker. “I see [Baresin] up the street here, they throw twenties at her, man. It’s all a big scam with the dog.”
Back in Union Square, a woman emerges from Whole Foods with a $5.39 box of organic dog treats and hands them to Baresin. “It’s for the dog,” the stranger says, and melts back into the river of pedestrians. Baresin opens the box, gives one to Tabitha, then huddles back under her dog-print blanket, head held low as her friend watches the people pass by.