We’ve seen them on the street walking with their trusted canine companions by their side. Or sitting side by side in a recessed doorway, out of the elements, sharing whatever food they could find.

In the lonely, stigmatized world of life on the streets, the homeless and their pets form a familial bond, a companionship borne of survival and the need to connect, a therapy for people living in the shadows, so often shunned by the rest of the world. It’s a bond so strong, that given the choice of life on the streets with their four-legged best friend or a roof over their heads without them, most of these people will choose the street with their friend.

“He gives me a sense of not being alone all the time,” explained Raphael Figueiredo, his words filled with raw emotion. “I couldn’t be without a dog, without a friend, ya know?”

And thanks to Camillus House and the generosity of strangers, Raphael and others like him don’t have to leave their best friends behind.

Operating solely on the generosity of donations, the Joanne and Greg Swienton Kennel provides basic services such as food distribution, vaccines and free medical checkups for their clients’ pets, but it is up to each resident to care for his or her animal. Occupying 705 square feet adjacent to the main building at the Norwegian Cruise Line Campus of Camillus House, the facility, currently configured only for dogs, is first-class according to Sam Gil, who is Vice-President of Marketing. It is air-conditioned, cleaned and sanitized on a regular basis, contains a wash area, locked storage area for food and medicine, and 18 animal enclosures of various sizes.

“Some of our homeless guests do have animals,” according Gil. “Persons who are homeless don’t have adequate means to provide proper nutrition and care for their pets, so we try to provide care for them. We give out food and clip nails. Most of the dogs we see have not had their vaccinations, so we get them vaccinated. We de-worm them, take care of ear mites and skin conditions, and if there’s a need for further veterinary services we try to refer them to the Humane Society.”

For Raphael and his one-year-old American Bulldog, Popeye, the kennel at Camillus is a gift. After losing his job the money ran out and, without a place to live, Raphael sought help at the Miami Beach Emergency Outreach Center. But they don’t take pets. “They were kind enough to mention that Camillus was a possibility, although availability would be limited,” Raphael recounted with a smile. But, “they had a kennel for him. So we’re here. He’s well taken care of. He’s loved here.”

“They allowed me to keep an important part of my family here with me,” said Nedra Davis who became homeless after her husband died earlier this year. She was determined not to lose her only family member. And she is very grateful that her five-year-old dog, Lizzy could come with her. “They gave her vaccinations, she’s had all of her shots here, they provide me with food; she’s safe in the kennel. I would have hated to lose my husband and my dog, too, so I’m very blessed to have her here with me.”

Bitty is a three-year-old dachshund who, according to her owner and Camillus client, Shelly Laurant, always had run of the house. But a few months ago, Shelly lost her job and they found themselves living on the street. With the help of local authorities, they were both able to find temporary shelter at Camillus. Kennel life was an adjustment for Bitty, but she has settled in very well. According to Shelly, “Bitty’s now happy. They give her food. If she needs shots they will provide them for her. They provide shampoo so we can bathe them.”

The kennel has been well received but the need continues to grow, especially in the surrounding community. Camillus House has established a relationship with the South Florida Veterinary Foundation and the Miami-Dade Animal Services Department. Once a month, they set up a clinic at the Camillus House Campus so those who cannot afford basic veterinary services can come and have their pets checked free of charge.

“We have an area near our lobby set-up for the clinic,” explains Gil. “The South Florida Veterinary Foundation provides free spay and neutering services so they always encourage those who come in to spay and neuter their animals. They’re here every third Sunday of the month to provide whatever service they can. If more is needed, they find pro-bono assistance to help them.”

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