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Caring for companions of the homeless
An afternoon with Coastal Pet Rescue’s Operation Street Paws

JUST AS HOMELESSNESS itself is a complex, multifaceted issue, the variety of organizations serving the homeless in Savannah is also quite diverse.

One of the most interesting efforts is that of Coastal Pet Rescue (CPR), a nonprofit now in its 15th year of finding new homes for animals and providing care.

Homeless people, of course, value pet companionship like anyone else does. CPR’s Operation Street Paws program is a weekly outreach into many of Savannah’s 22 known homeless camps, providing food and veterinary care for the canine and feline companions of residents in those often-misunderstood communities.

I recently rode along in CPR’s van on an Operation Street Paws mission, along with CPR founder and director Lisa Scarbrough and Operation Street Paws Coordinator Julia Schaaf. Here is my report.

Coastal Pet Rescue Founder/Director Lisa Scarbrough with a friend in one of the camps.
Coastal Pet Rescue Founder/Director Lisa Scarbrough with a friend in one of the camps. - photo by Photo courtesy Coastal Pet Rescue/Julia Schaaf

THE VAST majority of homeless people live quietly, ask for little, and mind their own business. Forging credibility and trust is the first step in homeless outreach, and Coastal Pet Rescue is no exception.

CPR’s point person for contact with the camps is Antoinette Joiner of the Chatham-Savannah Authority for the Homeless.

“She’s the gatekeeper. She rides with us to introduce us, and takes us to the places she knows have pets,” Lisa says.

“We take food, and start building a relationship. We ask how the pet is doing, if they have any concerns,” she says.

Many homeless people do have cellphones, which are a vital lifeline. Sometimes those with phones relay messages to other pet owners without them.

“A lot of times, people feel a little ashamed that they haven’t gotten the pet their shots in a long time, if ever. We offer to fix that. We bring basic vaccinations and deworming meds with us,” Lisa says.

While pets provide priceless companionship, they can also breed prolifically unless fixed. The resulting spiral of animals needing homes and/or medical treatment becomes another part of the matrix of issues surrounding homelessness.

“We ask them if the pet is spayed/neutered, and if not, would they be interested in having it done if it is paid for. That’s a very hard sell for some. We get a lot of yesses for cats, not a lot for dogs,” she says.

- photo by Photo courtesy Coastal Pet Rescue/Julia Schaaf

THE FIRST camp we visit is nicknamed “Turtle Row,” alongside the Jones Canal in East Savannah, for the many turtles you see sunning themselves by the algae-encrusted water.

We’re visiting a graceful female white pit mix named Tempest and looking after a family of cats there. Julia calls out to alert the residents of our approach, but only Tempest is home today.

So we spend some time with her, and leave some canned food for the owners to feed the animals with when they return.

While a very prevalent issue in homeless camps is the difficulty of disposing trash, Turtle Row is a bit different.

“Someone here recently got access to a vehicle, which is pretty unusual in homeless communities,” says Julia. “So they’re able to take their trash out of the camp and dump it. We don’t usually see that.”

Indeed, one of my biggest takeaways from this afternoon will be just how vital sanitation services are, and how much they are taken for granted.

If anything, the homeless create far less trash than the normal American consumer. But because they don’t have access to the same regular trash pickup that most of us do, the trash piles up. And piles up.

This creates ancillary problems, such as rodents, insects, snakes, a general lack of hygiene, and.... alligators. Yes, alligators.

The scarcity of access to vehicles means the camps are mostly dependent on others for trash disposal. And there’s the rub .

Probably the main thing all the homeless camps say they really need is a simple dumpster. But you’d be surprised what a political hot potato a dumpster can be:

You need a permit, you need permission from the property owner, you need a service to dump it regularly, you need someone in government who gives a damn and who’ll find a way to pay for it.

Much like unicorns, dumpsters in the camps are mostly mythical — but a creature constantly yearned for nonetheless.

We then make a stop at the Oasis Center on Wheaton Street to drop off some clothes and supplies for distribution to the camps.

Oasis’s centrally located nature, within easy walking distance of all the East Savannah homeless camps as well as the Chatham-Savannah Homeless Authority office in DFACS right across the street, is certainly no accident.

I soon find out Oasis is the closest thing to a real hub for the local homeless community. Capably run and staffed by the Savannah Baptist Center, Oasis is little-known compared to other service agencies, such as Inner City Night Shelter.

Yet, everyone I talk to this day says Oasis might be the most beloved of all: Oasis has free shower and restroom facilities. Today is “Men’s Day” at the showers, a big sign says; genders alternate days.

Like trash disposal, a hot shower is another of those very basic things that most of us take for granted.

The author with Boss, aka
The author with Boss, aka "Jimbo" at Pritchard 2 - photo by Photo courtesy Coastal Pet Rescue/Julia Schaaf

NEXT WE visit a pair of adjacent camps in West Savannah called Pritchard 1 and Pritchard 2, after a nearby street that intersects Louisville Road.

Pritchard 2 features well cared-for campsites overlooking a sunny glade. If you didn’t know it was a homeless camp, it could pass for a scene from a state park.

We drop off some canned food, and make a note to bring back some clippers; one of the campers wants to clip her pet’s claws but doesn’t have any.

In fact, paw care is a big veterinary issue in the camps.

“One of the most common things we do is emergency care for dogs who have stepped in broken glass,” Lisa says. “We also have first aid kits we can leave.”

It’s here we meet “Boss,” an affable pit bull puppy who has the run of the place, but no known owner. He is sweet and outgoing, but in need of vaccinations, flea control, and neutering.

Lisa jokingly renames him “Jimbo” because the pup quickly takes to me. He will accompany us in the van back to CPR’s “Camp Pawsawhile” shelter, and from there to the mandatory five-day stray hold at Animal Control before being taken back and put up for adoption by CPR.

“We’re contacted frequently about lost pets. We offer to scan for a chip at our shelter. If a chip is found, we’ll set up a crate and try to reach the owner,” explains Lisa.

“If we can reach an owner, we’ll hold the pet for them to come pick up. If we can’t, then the pet goes to Animal Control. Before we leave to take the pet to Animal Control, we go ahead and start trying to find a spot for it to go,” she says.

“It is a very heavy burden to be the one to take an animal there knowing that if you don’t take it out and an owner doesn’t show up, the outcome may not be a happy one,” Lisa says.

“If I’m involved in taking an animal to Animal Control, then I feel personally responsible for that animal. So I tag it to come to us after the stray hold and pray I find a place for it by then,” she says.

ANYONE who’s done a good amount of camping will recognize the high skill level with which homeless tentsites are set up. Many have an additional large tarp or two staked out over the tent for an extra layer of sun and rain protection.

Most of Savannah’s camps are located in low-lying, easily flooded areas, many of them near drainage canals. Wooden pallets are a constant sight; like the old “duckboards” in the trenches of WWI, they provide footing in muddy areas.

There are walkways made of pallets, and many tents have a couple of pallets set up at the entrance as a sort of foyer area, to shake mud off of shoes.

Many homeless aren’t truly “homeless” in the strict sense of the word, as their tent is indeed their home. Some camp residents in Savannah have lived there many years, sometimes a decade or more.

A lot of camps have access, either permanently or temporarily, to generators, so electronic devices and appliances are not uncommon. Long runs of extension cords are a frequent sight.

As those with houses also do, longterm houseless people invest a lot of time and energy in making their tentsites as comfortable and welcoming as possible.

“We’ve been in some tents that you’d think you were in someone’s living room inside a house,” says Lisa. “You almost can’t tell the difference.”

- photo by Photo courtesy Coastal Pet Rescue/Julia Schaaf

JUST ACROSS the canal within eyesight of Pritchard 2 is Pritchard 1, generally considered one of the most stable local homeless camps.

“You have to get voted in to live here, and you can be voted out,” says Lisa. “They sort of have their own government.”

Pritchard 1 has some residences within what look like former wooden stables, comparatively luxurious digs, complete with tin roof. CPR has sponsored a Little Free Library around the corner.

There are three, count ‘em, three little cinderblock churches within a long baseball’s throw of the camp.

The level of ingenuity at the camps is impressive, as residents use the various trades they have mastered.

“One guy here, a carpenter, built his own working shower,” Julia says.

We’re here at Pritchard 1 to gently lobby one resident — we’ll call him Joe — to finally let CPR take his faithful male dog to be neutered.

Joe and the dog aren’t there today, so we speak to his on/off girlfriend — we’ll call her Nancy.

Nancy tells us we might have some luck with the dog, but Joe is protective and probably still doesn’t want him neutered.

A friend of Nancy’s standing nearby deadpans, “I’m half-neutered, but that’s from a motorcycle accident.”

We all crack up. “That’s too much information,” laughs Nancy.

The effort to convince people in the camps of the need for spay/neutering is an ongoing, and often frustrating, challenge.

People sometimes sell puppies, and sometimes they just want more puppies and kittens as pets.

“We have one guy that has a female dog. She’s had several litters. She’s pregnant again,” says Lisa.

“He’s said he will let us spay her after this litter. Two of her puppies live with other residents in the same camp group. We’re watching and waiting.”

- photo by Photo courtesy Coastal Pet Rescue/Julia Schaaf

JUST AS everywhere else, homeless camps run the gamut of human interactions. Relationships form and dissolve, some more amicably than others.

And also just as everywhere else, women bear the brunt of the impact — psychologically, and often physically as well.

“It seems like most of the women we see in the camps first ended up there by following a man,” says Julia.

While both Lisa and Julia are highly complimentary of the Homeless Authority’s plan for 241 Tiny Houses off Wheaton Street, reserved for homeless veterans, they say that’s not always a typical segment of the local homeless population.

“The only issue with Tiny Houses is they’re for a single resident living alone,” says Lisa. “Most of the people we deal with are in couples.”

The large homeless settlement under the Truman Parkway — which gets most of the attention from the public and politicians — is known as “the drama camp.”

It’s said that the Truman settlement is often where the people with the worst substance abuse and/or mental health problems end up, after being forced out of the other camps for one reason or another.

Here at Pritchard 1, if you’re on the outs, whether because of a breakup or because you can’t get along with others, you can be exiled – which might consist of moving about 100 feet away, on the other side of a large, well-kept greenspace.

I ask who mows the grass, and Julia says she thinks it’s the pastor of one of the nearby churches.

Comfortable, middle-class me assumes the mowing is done for cosmetic reasons, but Julia disabuses me of that notion.

“It also keeps the snakes away,” she says matter of factly.

- photo by Photo courtesy Coastal Pet Rescue/Julia Schaaf

WE DRIVE a short distance to a camp off West Boundary Street, near a prominent SCAD building, to drop off pet food and check on some animals.

The CPR folks have jokingly nicknamed the camp “Zombie Apocalypse” — not because of the residents, who are very chill and polite, but because of some creepy-looking dolls set up at the entrance.

We’re looking for the camp’s self-appointed “Mayor,” a longtime resident who is its civic leader. There’s a sign at his tentsite that says to check in with him first.

However, today the Mayor isn’t in his office. I’m disappointed not to have met him.

Camp Zombie Apocalypse may be in need of his political acumen soon. The planned expansion in this part of West Savannah, for the new Arena and the so-called Canal District, means that many camps in this area will be closed, casualties of Savannah’s mania for expansion.

The same is going on in East Savannah near the Truman camp. That area is slated for development on both sides of President Street, including the “Eastern Wharf,” formerly Savannah River Landing.

Set to be built near camps Pritchard 1 and 2, the new Westside Arena alone — just the building — will cost about as much as the entire annual discretionary budget of the City of Savannah.

Combined, the level of taxpayer investment in both the Canal District and the Eastern Wharf area is staggeringly large, in the hundreds of millions.

It’s all to develop new upscale housing and lodging and entertainment for tourists — when there is still nowhere near enough affordable housing for the people who already live here.

Yet nobody seems to want to pay for a damn dumpster.