Lifting Up Where We Can

dr carey stands with his hands on his hips

I’m watching the blood roll down Dr. Carey’s arm, but he isn’t letting go. We’ve been working with this dog, Patsy Mae, for several minutes, trying to get her vaccinations done. One of her nails got doc on the arm as she struggled, so it’s just a minor scratch that’s bleeding, but still. This is likely a far different retirement than his colleagues are experiencing, and certainly different than what he envisioned for himself.

“The last thing I wanted to do is see another dog,” he told me earlier that day, speaking of his retirement. And yet here he is week after week going out with Uplift on our behalf, vaccinating pets of the houseless. And providing food and supplies.

And he’s not alone. At this point in our partnership with Uplift, Dr. Carey has a real team. Todd Lowenstein is kind of a powerhouse of a volunteer. When he signs up for a volunteer opportunity, you know he’ll be giving 110%. “He’s one of the most remarkable people I’ve been around,” says Dr. Carey. And Dennis VanHorn, though he hasn’t been on the route as much as either doc or Todd, is shaping up to be just as important.

Todd stands in the parking lot near the PRCKC vehicle with keys in hand, looking at the camera
Todd is instrumental in the success of our work with Uplift.

This trio goes out every Wednesday for hours, following an Uplift vehicle on their various routes throughout the metro to designated meeting places where folks experiencing houselessness can get resources for themselves and then visit our van to get resources and shots for their dogs and cats.

This partnership with Uplift has been going on for about a year and a half. At first it was a rotating group of people. Sometimes we had a vet, sometimes we didn’t. Once Dr. Carey joined us, things started to change, and this began to turn into a stronger, more reliable program. But that’s a story in and of itself.

Todd looks off into the distance while Dennis arranges items in the vehicle.
Dennis and Todd at one of our stops.

Dr. Carey finds a new home

Dr. Jerry Carey graduated from University of Missouri with his veterinary degree in 1968. As fate would have it, he was drafted for Vietnam just two years later, and fulfilled that obligation as an officer in the US Public Health Service, working with the National Institute of Health doing research.

And though he considered staying in research, he knew that opening a practice was what he really wanted to do. So that’s exactly what he did, working for 45 years and retiring just nine years ago. At first, retirement was a lot of getting out and hiking, backpacking, and traveling to other countries. You know, the things you kind of expect.

But once you retire, you can either give up your license or do 20 hours of continuing education every year to keep it active. He was doing the CE, but began to wonder why. What was the point if he wasn’t doing anything with it?

When he attended a presentation by Dr. Michael Blackwell on finding ways to bring veterinary care to those who couldn’t afford it, he was incredibly excited. Blackwell is a former chief of staff for the Office of the Surgeon General of the U.S. and the creator of Aligncare, a community-based program that helps people who can’t afford vet care get what they need for their pets.

Maybe, he thought. Maybe I can do something like this.

Driving down Troost about a month after Blackwell’s presentation, he saw our sign and pulled into the lot. He’d never heard of us, didn’t know who we were or what we did. He just felt like this was a place to go to see about his idea. Talking to one of the vets about what he was thinking of trying out, she told him about our partnership with Uplift, then only a few months old. The rest is history.

Preparing for the night

Uplift is up on Prospect, around Independence Avenue. It’s a pretty unassuming space from the outside. But it’s big. It’s really two spaces, one being the warehouse, which stores supplies of all kinds: clothes, shoes, food, hygiene items, and on and on. The other space has a huge kitchen in which they cook meals to hand out every night.

A panoramic picture of the Uplift warehouse
The Uplift headquarters

And it truly is every night. They serve between 250 – 400 people every night, going to parks, camps, bridges, parking lots, wherever they need to be. I’m given to hyperbole, but this is an amazing organization. No paid staff, all volunteers. Completely donation-based. And they’ve been around for 30 years.

And it’s busy on the Wednesday I go out with our team. There’s an electricity in the air as their volunteers prepare to go on their various routes. They have several routes every night, using several specially-equipped vans. We rotate which route we go out with every week, which means on the weeks that we’re not on a particular route, the volunteers get a lot of questions from folks at the camps about when we’ll be with them next, because… well… inevitably someone has something they need for their pet. This is the nature of their lives, making do with what they’ve got until they can get what they need.

Dr. Carey has made schedules for the drivers to have, and some to give to people in the field so that they at least know how long they have to wait until they see us again.

Todd and Dennis are prepping things in the PRC-mobile. Dennis especially barely looks up from bagging treats at a rapid clip, because you don’t ever know how many people are going to show up, and better to be over- rather than under-prepared.

But when the time comes, we all gather in the warehouse space to meet before the teams head out for the night.

The organizer addresses the group.

“I thank you guys for doing this,” he says, “because not only is it good to do it for your fellow man, it’s also good to do it for society. I mean, we’re at kind of a crossroads right now it seems to be in the world we’re living in. And you can either take a path one way or the other. And certainly one like this is the path you want to be on. Because the whole world gets better as you do this.”

And then we’re released into the wild.

Into the field

Cici isn’t houseless. That’s the first thing she’ll tell you. At least, not yet.

She’s in a bad situation, stuck living in a place where she doesn’t feel safe. But she’s been houseless before, and her past keeps her from finding a new place that will accept her as a tenant. She’s incredibly worried that her time will run out and she’ll be on the streets again. She doesn’t want that for herself.

And she certainly doesn’t want that for Little Dude.

Cici kisses on Little Dude, strapped into a baby bjorn on her chest
Cici and Little Dude

He is, as the name suggests, a little dude. White frizzy hair, button eyes and a little red vest that Cici made herself. She may not be houseless yet, but Cici is still struggling, and though she’s got Little Dude up-to-date on vaccinations, she still needs some help with food and supplies. So she’s at the first stop of the night, up in North Kansas City.

She rides a little scooter, with Little Dude in a baby bjorn strapped to her chest.

“He eats when I eat,” she told me, offering him a little of the food given to her by the Uplift vehicle. She’s telling me about her situation. She speaks so quickly that it’s hard to keep up. In my dealings with people who are struggling, I’ve found this to be a common thing. They push all the words out so fast simply because someone is listening. They’re not used to being listened to.

Stomach cancer, lupus, difficulty eating. A bad situation with a horrible man that’s best left undescribed here. Teetering on the brink of being houseless again, something she’s afraid of in part because there are some people stuck in the cycle of addiction among the houseless, and they can cause trouble for everyone. She doesn’t want trouble. She just wants a place to be where she feels safe. Which really, is that so much to ask for?

“All I really have left is my scooter and my dog,” she says.

Cici offers Little Dude a bite of food on her fork.
Cici offers Little Dude a bite of food.

Todd and I sit with her for a while, taking turns playing with Little Dude while Cici eats. At one point he wiggles out of his vest a little bit, and the velcro gets stuck in his fur, close to the skin.

“Oh no,” she says, and ramps up into what would best be described as a fit of anxiety. “It’s gonna hurt him. He’s gonna get hurt.” Within seconds she is near tears at the idea that she would cause him any pain, even by getting him unstuck. After a couple of minutes we manage to get him loose and then fix up his vest properly. Cici settles down again and goes back to eating, but I’m still thinking about her anxiety. Because it was for Little Dude, yes, but underneath was a question: what bad thing is happening now, and why?

As things are winding down a woman shows up and wants vaccinations for her dogs, so we leave Cici and Little Dude to go back to the vehicle. The Uplift folks check with us to make sure we’re okay on our own, and then head out to the next stop.

This is where we encounter Patsy Mae. Afterwards we get doc bandaged up, and the crew secures everything on the vehicle to get ready to roll. Dennis is prepping more bags of treats.

The night is just beginning, after all.

Helping them hold on

“One woman told me, ‘I would have committed suicide a long time ago if I didn’t have this pet,’” Dr. Carey tells me.

I’m not surprised. What I’ve learned in my time with Pet Resource Center is that many people consider their pets a constant companion, a stable place in a world that can shift under your feet, knocking you to the ground before you even realize what’s happened. I’ve met people struggling with addiction, depression, you name it, and their pets are what brought them through.

Among the houseless that feeling is even stronger, and they hold onto it tighter than most, in part because they really don’t have that much to hold onto otherwise. We can’t fix everything, but we will do whatever it’s in our power to do.

As for Dr. Carey, he’s right there with us.

“I feel like it’s my calling to do. I truly enjoy it, it’s been a great experience.”

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