My first trip out is in December. Sort of warm to start. Sort of. As the sky turns gray and then black, the wind grows some teeth and the temps get frisky.
It’s not the bone-jarring cold that we can get at times here in KC. But enough that after four hours out in it, I’m ready to be inside.
And that’s the thing. That’s what’s weighing on me as the temps drop into the upper thirties. I get to leave all this behind, to escape into the comfort of a home, a blanket, a cushy sofa, and two warm dogs who’ll no doubt want to climb all over me with their wiggly and excited bodies.
But for the people we’re out here helping, this is the ONLY reality. There is no escape.
Help for the houseless
They have been referred to in various ways over the years. A lot of it has been less than flattering. These days they are most likely called homeless, though as many of them will remind you, they aren’t necessarily homeless because they have a community and friends. They just don’t have houses.
Still, to be in the camps is to fully realize the swelling ranks of those awash in broken dreams and damaged lives. How they live adrift in the wake of the seemingly frequent socio-economic upheavals that happen in a global economy that prioritizes capital gains over human currency.
Each budgetary hiccup dislodges more of them, thrust into situations they never imagined while facing a daily battle for survival with few handholds to grab on to. And, sure, some are out there because they have deeper problems that are hard to define and even harder to fix. Then there are people like Trey (see photo below), who never expected the world to flip upside down and sweep everything away in a heartbeat.
Turns out we end up meeting many people who got blindsided by circumstances. A job loss, an illness, something dramatic that reshuffled their lives and left them with few cards to play. This is what happened to Hani, who you might remember from previous stories. He lost a job due to the pandemic and shortly thereafter, lost his home and ended up living in a tent. His story is recounted in For Some, Life Is Not Getting Anything Close to Better
Wednesdays with Uplift
Each week, on Wednesday nights, we head out with our friends from Uplift. They prepare and deliver meals twice a week, which means they know where to go and what to carry that will be most helpful. Their crews – all volunteer – are divided into four routes. We follow in our own van, three of us usually, and help tend to the pets who live with the people who stay “out there.”
That means a van filled with food, flea and tick prevention, leashes and collars, a few toys, plus vaccines and a doctor to administer them.
A lot of people are surprised to learn that the houseless have pets. The bigger surprise is that, for the most part, they are always healthy and well-fed. As one man told me, “if there’s only enough food for one of us, he eats.”
At one point that December night, maybe somewhere in the northeast part of the city, we bounce down a pock-marked road strewn with everything modern society casts aside. There is the shell of a burned out car, large piles of brush dumped haphazardly in the road, and plenty of trash tossed about. It’s a dead end so we pick our way through the debris and find a place to park.
As we step out of the van, the sooty, acrid tang of warming fires fill our noses and cast a hazey blanket over the camp. The fires glow like orange flickering dots that stretch through the woods in three directions.
With a quick honk of the Uplift horn, people start appearing from their camps, eager for food, maybe some additional clothing to help shield them from the cold and, for those with pets, some supplies for their furry friends.
Most are very talkative, eager to share the latest anecdote about their pet. Turns out people living in tough conditions like this are not unlike the rest of us. They love their pets and want to talk about them with whoever will listen. As one lady told me enthusiastically while referring to her small pitbull: “he sleeps on my chest every night.”
My last outing with Uplift was in early April. It was much warmer, though rain had made everything wet and had me thinking about the misery of being drenched all the way through without a way to get dry. For the people we met, it didn’t seem to matter. I guess when your life is spent dealing with Mother Nature’s whims, you come to grips with it because there is no other choice.
As we drove from stop to stop, I kept thinking about how I’d like to go with Uplift more often. I think all of us would. Of course, there is the expected heartache of seeing people struggle, especially as weather conspires to make their lives more difficult. Selfishly, however, it just feels right to be helping in this way. And you meet and talk to plenty of people who have a kindness and warmth about them.
But, the waiting list for the three seats in our van is long …
As we round out our night with one last stop near Hy-Vee Arena, we are greeted by a swarm of sweet and hungry cats. The few people at the last stop are also eager for something to eat anda brief chat before they head back down the hill.
I don’t know where they’re going, but I know whatever is in front of them won’t be easy. My life, by comparison, seems like a gentle stroll.
They deserve to be loved
It’s nearing 10 as we turn the van back toward the clinic. I don’t know this now but the buzz from this night, from the people I met while out there, will end up keeping my brain occupied for hours to come.
I keep thinking about Coco, too, the beautiful gray pitbull that weighed about 80 lbs (I’m a sucker for the gray ones, btw). She was a tidal wave of wiggles and love. And what I saw most of all besides her beauty and sweetness was how she looked at her mom and how her mom looked back at her.
Instead of sleep, I’m also thinking about how pets don’t care what we look like, smell like, where we live, or what conditions our lives are in when they’re with us.
And that’s the power of pets. They transcend economics or social status. Their love is pure and without judgment. It doesn’t matter if you have a castle with a moat or a tent perched precariously on a patch of dirt near the railroad tracks. A pet will dedicate their life to loving you.
That’s what is going through my mind … about their ability to love unconditionally despite our rather spotty record when it comes to doing right by them.
Too, I’m glad to be working at a place where we understand that, when you help a pet, you help the people who love them. It’s important to me that we don’t pass judgment on people and do not believe in the oft repeated phrase, “if you can’t afford a pet, you shouldn’t have one.” For a lot of the people we serve, a small bit of support is all it takes to keep that dog or cat with them. And we figure it beats the alternative, which is one more pet in the shelter or on the streets.
So we’ll keep going out with Uplift, helping the people out there by helping the pets who love and support them. Because their pets – and our own – are here to carry the weight of our world on their shoulders. And they ask for nothing but love and a little something to eat in return.
That is #ThePowerOfPets.