Many people in Charlotte, North Carolina, the United States are familiar with Alan Lord and his dog, Levi. They’re seen regularly at busy intersections across the city. Lord, 43, is a Charlotte native who says he once worked at a major bank in town. His life began to unravel last year, he says, when he got a divorce and lost his Myers Park townhouse.
Levi, four, is a tan Labrador, purchased as a puppy, Lord says, from a local breeder. He’s 36kg, and likes to chew sticks. Everything the two of them own is inside a crate on wheels – which is where Levi spends most of his day.
Dog lovers who have donated to Lord over the past few months now say they’re frustrated that he won’t accept long-term options to give Levi a life off the streets and out of the crate. They are pressuring Mecklenburg County Animal Care And Control to take the dog.
The pair have been homeless for almost a year, Lord says. Traditional services for homeless people in the city don’t work in this case: Dogs aren’t allowed in shelters, and the two have occasionally stayed in hotels, which means they haven’t been continuously homeless long enough to qualify for most housing programs.
Lord says he wants to go to Hawaii to live with his brother – but he has little money and no firm plan. His parents are dead and family members who live nearby aren’t in the picture, he says. In the meantime, he’s registered Levi as an emotional support service dog, with the help of a Gastonia woman. (Emily Cole says she is now raising money to start a homeless shelter for people with pets.)
“Levi – he’s all I have,” Lord said as he sat in a parking lot. “He’s my best friend and always will be.”
Dina Castanas, a Dilworth resident, recently organised a community meeting where animal control officials faced criticism from nearly 25 outraged neighbours who want Levi out of the crate. “It’s an animal caught in the middle. Levi has no voice and no choice in the matter,” she said. A city law says owners cannot keep dogs outdoors in crates or carriers.
But Josh Fisher, director of Animal Care And Control, says enforcement is only needed if the dog is “suffering” or its owner is neglecting or abusing him. Animal welfare officers have visited the dog almost daily, he said, in answer to calls complaining the crate is not big enough for Levi to stand upright, or turn around in. Those officers have found Levi up-to-date on his vaccinations, in good health and with a good disposition, Fisher said.
Animal Care and Control is right to consider Lord’s desire to keep his dog, says Allison Winston, with Urban Ministry Center of Charlotte, a nonprofit group that works to end chronic homelessness. Lord’s situation, although distressing, is not uncommon among people who lose their jobs, homes or other stability, she said.
People trying to help them, she said, may not realise how long it can take to build rapport and convince homeless people to try something different. And even then, next steps aren’t always immediately available: Urban Ministry’s wait list for housing includes at least 240 people.
“People on this list. They are literally dying on the streets,” Winston said. “People respond differently when there’s an animal involved. I find it surprising that so many people are up in arms about Alan and Levi when there are so many homeless people around Charlotte.”
Is Levi Suffering?
So far, Lord has refused to accept any option that might separate him, even temporarily, from Levi. Case workers at Urban Ministry say Lord also wouldn’t let them do an intake assessment in recent weeks that would have helped him get medical appointments, job counseling and other services.
Colder weather is approaching, and Lord says he does not have a plan. Last winter, he and Levi stayed temporarily in a Charlotte church’s storage area.
A few months ago, the two were featured on a TV news broadcast that highlighted the generosity of a couple helping them. Terri McConnell and her husband estimate they have spent about US$3,500 (RM14,784) on Lord and Levi, from camping equipment and clothing to hotel rooms and food for them both.
“We didn’t mind. But then there comes a point where you’re like ‘We’re throwing good money after bad’ … He’s refusing help,” McConnell said, noting that Lord sometimes argued with her about Levi’s welfare.
She thinks Levi’s living situation is unacceptable and that it’s unfair Lord won’t take steps to help himself and his dog. “The more paranoid he gets about someone trying to take that dog, the worse it’s getting,” she said.
Lord says he doesn’t want to remain homeless but is skeptical of people who first offered him help and now are pushing to get his dog taken away. “We’re not breaking any laws,” he said. “They’re passing judgment.”
Fisher, of Animal Care And Control, said his department has been dealing with the situation “on and off” since January. He and others are working on a permanent housing solution, he said, that will allow the two to stay together. “We’re not looking the other way,” he said. “But taking Levi away would be a negative outcome.”
Fisher said he understands neighbours who want Levi to be outside the crate more. But “suffering is very much in the eyes of the beholder,” he said. To dog owners with big backyards for pets to enjoy and homes where pets sleep and eat comfortably, Levi’s situation looks harsh – but Levi is in good health, Fisher said, and his agency believes Lord is providing adequate care.
If Animal Care And Control took Levi, he said, the dog would have to be observed before being adopted. He, like any other animal, might react badly to a stressful shelter environment, Fisher said. And there’s no guarantee he’d find a new home. “Public safety doesn’t always mean taking an animal away,” Fisher said. “We want to help try to find some of these community solutions.” – The Charlotte Observer/Tribune News Service