By Anna Glavash
“There needs to be some changes here,” Megan Adler says as her hulking black Chevy van rolls through downtown Eugene. “Dogs get taken care of by the city better than the homeless. Dogs have shelter. They get fed. They get picked up.”
After fostering rescue dogs for seven years, Adler was inspired by a mother and daughter in LA who bring donated food and supplies to street pets and their people. Adler now manages Hounds and Homeless, a Facebook page telling stories of her encounters with Eugene’s homeless community and their pets. “I don’t really consider myself a real organization or founder, I kind of just consider myself to be doing,” she says.
A thin woman with a dark braid and flaming red highlights, Adler smiles often, revealing one gap in a row of white teeth. Cloudbursts rolled across roofs this November afternoon, but no roof sheltered Adler’s regulars. The sun was already setting and tonight’s meal would be served not only on soggy ground but under darkness.
The van pulls up at Park Blocks. The back doors yawn, revealing shelves piled with harnesses and bags of kibble. She takes out dog-sized raincoats, one pink and one blue, and wraps them around two German shepherds, who move in tandem on a forked leash.
“They’re about the only thing the Eugene Police Department can’t get me for,” their owner Corey says of his dogs, who are documented service animals for his hearing loss and epilepsy. Tensions between Eugene’s homeless and police were stretched this year as EPD enforced a temporary downtown dog ban that effectively kept a lot of Adler’s regulars out of the area.
Adler chatters away in a musical voice. The dogs sit obediently for biscuits as she snaps photos for her page. Though she’s a one-woman operation this day, her 15-year-old daughter and fiancé sometimes help, because the work takes a toll. Adler has fibromyalgia, an autoimmune disease characterized by chronic pain and exhaustion.
After going on disability and “sitting at home just depressed and feeling like I had no purpose,” she craved rewarding work. She started with one donation box at a local pet store. Initially thought she would run it through the Christmas season, but “the response was so great and the need was so much that I just couldn’t stop.”
Even though it can take days to recover from the physical strain of loading the van, standing outside in the cold and wet, and what she calls “compassion burn-out,” Adler says she’s open to helping where, when, and how she can. “Everyone needs something different, and some people just need a hug,” she says.
She bags up dog food, treats, toilet paper, and socks for Corey and closes the van doors, revealing a bumper sticker. “I ❤ MY PITBULL”. With no formal training with dogs, Adler has learned everything from experience. “When I started I was so shy. I didn’t know how to approach people.” She hesitates at a four-way stop. A dreamcatcher and a lei dangle and swing from the dashboard as the van lurches around corners.
Adler turns the van toward another park to look for dogs at a weekly free meal. She used to follow Occupy Medical, a free clinic that would set up in Eugene on Sundays, but they recently lost their building and Adler isn’t sure where everyone will be today. As she searches, she tells a story. “Two Sundays ago, a friend brought me a totally emaciated, white gums, dehydrated, really sick puppy,” she says.
The owner called, and she gave him three options: he could meet her at the emergency vet and pay for care, she’d return the dog and bring Animal Control with her, or he could surrender the dog and she’d get it immediate care. It’s taken Adler years to do this type of negotiating without starting a fight.
The day before, a couple of traveling kids named Daniel and Short Stack huddled by a lamp post in Kesey Square with a large honey-colored dog. They didn’t look older than 22.
The dog ban had been expired for three days. They’d had Hyde, their pup, for four. “He came from an abusive situation,” Short Stack cautioned as Hyde shivered anxiously, his fearful eyes following passerby. Friends arrived and he gave a low bark before a slow wag.
Officer Matt Pizzola of EPD is surprised the ban was allowed to expire. “It’s been lifted for a couple days, and already we almost had a dogfight. I love dogs, but there’s irresponsible pet owners and that’s part of the reason the ban was put in place.”
Melissa Hite, formerly homeless herself, is now another aid organizer for the homeless and mentor to Adler. Hite says that homeless people and dogs help each other live better lives. “Our dogs are better behaved and much happier, because they’re with us all the time. Sometimes they get a little territorial. But most of the dogs barking downtown are the housed dogs.” Housed dogs, she explains, are alone for hours on end.
The van rolls up to a group gathered in the twilight, and a young woman approaches. Adler greets her warmly. Other regulars stop by and catch up as Adler smokes.
Short Stack and Hyde appear. “Hi cutie! How you doing, hon?” Adler effuses warmth. “What do you need for him? I got some waterproof coats, if you want one.” She does. “You need anything for you, hon?” Adler’s attention turns to the girl on the end of the leash. “I think I gave out my last gloves. But I’ve got a really pretty rainbow beanie.” It goes straight onto Short Stack’s head.
The crowd thins as people roll or trudge off. Adler’s last act is to hand out the rest of the socks. One man recognizes her. “Are you with Occupy Medical?” She smiles slowly. “I’m the dog lady.”