For a long time now, I’ve wanted to get out into the streets and see how many animals are living with the homeless of our city. I just didn’t really know how to go about it. Then one night at a get-together, I ran into a friend of mine who told me that she was volunteering with a group that goes out twice a week to bring food to the homeless. I got the contact information, but it was still a few months before I finally reached out to the director, and made a plan to meet

Last Thursday, Dr. Angélica, our new volunteer Siobhan and I took to the streets. We met up with a group of 4 volunteers from “Caminos de la Vida” who were loading up the box of their pick-up with coolers, huge coffee urns, plates, cups and utensils. While we waited, I realized that we were in a part of Valdivia that I normally would not visit at 9:30pm at night. The people in the streets were loud and boisterous, wandering around in groups, the houses were small and cluttered; their lives spilling out into the streetswe did not feel entirely safe.

With the truck loaded with food, we were told to follow them to the first stop.

It was a really cold night, with a hint of rain, and Victor was sitting on the sidewalk, completely incoherent, empty bottle at his side. The director of the group – Ricardo, tried to talk to him, but he did not respond. He put a tray of food and hot coffee beside him, and before he left, he just laid his hand gently on Victor’s head and made human contact. The only warmth Victor had with him, were his four dogs.

The next stop was along a busy street, at an abandoned building covered in graffiti. Here we found a queen size bed with four full grown men sleeping in it. Ricardo called out to them, and they awoke, fear replaced with big grins once they realized who it was. While eating, one of the men-Bernardo, told their story. He has been living there, on that cement porch of that same building, for 9 years and doubted he would ever leave. He claimed that he was responsible for the other three men who all suffered from severe mental illness, and if he were to leave, they would be attacked by other homeless people looking for a comfortable bed. As he told us his story, he talked about the violence in the streets- a life that few of us can imagine, and the importance of their many dogs. He pulled back the covers and a terrier lifted its head to see what was going on, then curled up and went back to sleep, pressing itself against Bernardo. He said that his little dog slept there with him every night. The others stayed around the bed, protecting them from…whatever. There were at least another 4 large dogs skulking about, watching us warily, but there was also a small female dog, skinny as can be, with 4 tiny puppies curled up on the cold cement. I offered her some food and despite her fear of strangers, she stretched her neck as long as it could go to avoid getting too close to me, and wolfed down the kibble. I poured more and left her to eat in peace.

A woman and a cat

One of our stops was along the riverfront in the city centre. Here there are long rows of stalls where vendors sell their wares during the day, and apparently that serve a whole other purpose by night. There were people merrily drinking and playing cards, telling us that this was the life, they wouldn’t have it any other way. Others marked out their territory with benches and planks and made beds under the cover of the tables, trying to sleep through the drunken shouting.

One man sat up in bed to receive his meal. He had two little dogs in bed with him, and he seemed to suffer from some kind of mental disability.Truthfully, I barely understood a thing he said. But his body language told the whole story. He wrapped his arms around his little dog and pulled her to him in a tight embrace. His hands were HUGE and so dirty, but he held her gently and rocked back and forth, sometimes laying his head on hers. His smile was so contagious, and I could see and feel the importance of these little warm loyal beings for these forgotten people.

We carried on through the night, stopping again and again, serving food and hot coffee and asking them about their dogs. The people from the “Caminos de la Vida” organization have a personal connection with every single person we stopped to visit, and they chatted for about 15-20 minutes at each stop. I think the food was secondary- these people just wanted to talk. I have never met a more dedicated group- twice a week, every week, all year ‘round, rain or shine, this group cooks and then serves their food to 40-50 homeless people, treating each one with the respect and dignity that every human deserves. I take my hat off to this group!

At about 1am, one of our last stops, we pulled up in a small field littered with tires, bottles and other garbage. The ground was wet, muddy and uneven as we stumbled along, then squeezed through a hole in a chain link fence. There we entered a small, filthy yard with a tin shack and a few tents. Inside the shack were a woman and a man sitting on a piece of wood with a single candle sputtering out a tiny sphere of light in the cold room. The woman had Down ’s syndrome and she had been beaten up by her partner. It was terrible.

She was so alone and I thought about some of the other people we had seen that night and how much comfort they found in the company of their four-legged pets; it just broke my heart that of all the people we had seen that night, she was the only one with a human partner, and she was the most alone of all.

I got home around 2am, and tried to sleep, but I couldn’t stop thinking about these people. How did they end up there? How could they put up with the loneliness and the fear of living in that other world? I realized how much the dogs meant to them, and what an important role they played in the lives and emotional health of the homeless. I have heard the argument many, many times that owning a pet is not a right, but a privilege, and not everyone deserves to have one. In my most righteous moments, tired of seeing clients unwilling to care properly for their pets, I have agreed. Yet seeing these relationships firsthand gives the human animal bond a whole new meaning…to me at least. I know that these people cannot spay or neuter the dogs; I know that none of these dogs have ever been vaccinated or dewormed, but I understand a whole lot better now, the importance of having them close by, snuggled in their beds, always available to listen, a warm body to comfort them in their loneliness.

We will continue to go out and visit these people and treat their pets for some of the more common problems we saw- fleas, mange and other simple things we can do to make all of their lives a tiny bit more comfortable. Later, once they trust us a bit more, we can talk about vaccines and even spay or neuter. But for now, we will take it one step at a time.