Gehrke: This Utah nonprofit helps homeless people by helping their pets

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dotty Antonio picks up doggie treats and some food for her dog Carmela from the Sunday Street Dawg Crew, a group that gives out food, treats, leashes and things fort pets of homeless people. Sunday, July 7, 2019.

Thirteen years ago, Carter Davis picked out a pit bull puppy and named her Miko. They have been together ever since — and that includes living on the streets since January.

You’ve probably seen tandems like them, homeless men and women who rely on their pet for unconditional companionship and, in some cases, protection. By some estimates as many as 10 percent of the nearly 3,000 homeless people in Utah are caring for a pet.

They develop a special bond, Davis said.

“I wouldn't ever give her up. I love her,” he said. “We’ve been through a lot. … I could never give her up. I’d rather be out homeless than not have this dog.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Robert Gehrke.

It’s not easy. Food and routine veterinary care are an added burden on people who are scraping by as it is.

A few weeks ago, Miko fell ill. Davis said she could barely stand. Today Miko is on the mend, thanks to the Street Dawg Crew of Utah, a nonprofit focused on helping Utah’s homeless take better care of their canine (and in some cases feline or miscellaneous) companions.

A volunteer with the group rushed Miko to a vet to get treated for mites and mange and got her back on her feet, at no cost to Davis.

The idea for the Street Dawg Crew came to Margie Varela back in 2017. Varela worked downtown, not far from Pioneer Park, and had been giving dog food to people with pets and started talking to a friend and fellow dog-lover, Kimo Pokini, who had just started working with the homeless.

“I realized there were a lot of needs out there, so I said, ‘Let’s join forces,’” Pokini said.

Since then, they’ve built a cadre of committed volunteers and formed relationships with animal clinics and shelters to make sure these dogs and cats are cared for.

Every Sunday, rain, snow or shine, volunteers are at Pioneer Park passing out food, leashes and dog treats. They check on the pets to help make sure they’re in good health and well cared for. In the winter months, they hand out dog sweaters and coats.

Twice a year, volunteers come down to make sure the pets are properly vaccinated, free of charge. That’s where I met Miko, who was cuddled up on a blanket next to Davis under a tree. She was one of dozens of dogs, from a shivering chihuahua to a hulking mastiff, on hand to get their shots.

Varela and Pokini keep bags of food and water and collapsable dishes in their cars so they can stop when they see someone who might be in need.

Part of the mission is also education, sharing information with owners about the importance of getting their pet spayed or neutered and options available for those procedures, Varela said. Often, they’ll help pay for all or part of the cost.

The work can be emotionally taxing. They can’t save every animal, Varela said, but they try to help as many as they possibly can.

“I have a client that comes to my house and he lives in his car with his three dogs since his wife died and left him stuck with medical bills last year,” Varela said. “We’re not judgmental against anybody.”

And that’s what I think makes the Street Dawg Crew’s work so important — no judgment. Most of us, fortunately, won’t know what it’s like to be homeless, but it’s a hard life. A pet, volunteer Stan Stensrud, is a friend these folks can count on, who won’t judge and who will love them no matter what.

So when those pets need a little care, it’s good to know there are people like the Street Dawg Crew who will be there to provide that love the same way Miko the pit bull would — unconditionally.