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Kansas City homeless residents resist giving up pets during extreme heat: ‘That’s not loyalty’

A man leans over two red brindle pit bulls. They are standing on a sidewalk near a car covered with tarps.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
David Murphy pets his two pit bulls, Red Dog, left, and Felony, outside the reStart shelter where he's temporarily parked his car.

Kansas City's homeless shelters and cooling centers do not accept pets, but owners say they don't want to have to choose between keeping their animals and getting relief in extreme weather.

David Murphy lives out of his car with his two pit bulls, and when Kansas City gets as hot as it’s been lately, he has to take some inventive measures.

To create some extra shade, he’s built a makeshift tent using tarps attached to his Chevy Malibu.

“When it gets too hot, I just suffer with ‘em,” Murphy says. “We sweat and drink water together. Literally, we’ve been sitting in the heat together just like, ‘Well you’re doin’ it. I’m doin’ it.’”

Kansas City’s homeless population struggles enough with the withering heat, but those with animals are doubly burdened with caring for their four-legged companions.

Most of the city’s homeless shelters and cooling centers won’t allow animals inside, leaving pet owners with few options. Pets create a host of concerns for shelters, including biting, hygiene and allergies.

Chance Dulin, an adult outreach specialist at the homeless agencyreStart, says most unhoused residents are reluctant to give up their pets — partially out of worry about getting them back.

“It’s extreme loyalty,” Dulin says. “Their pets have proven to be loyal to them, so, therefore, they feel as if they have to be loyal to their pet.”

But Murphy says that because people aren’t willing to part with their pet, they put themselves and their animals at risk, especially in brutal weather conditions.

KC Pet Project has created a service called “Home Away from Home,” which allows pet owners in crisis to temporarily surrender their pets for care at the shelter or in a foster home.

In addition to extreme weather, Tori Fugate at KC Pet Project says the recent financial crisis, housing upheaval and pandemic have created the need for temporary animal placements.

“We have heard of people ultimately losing their lives because they didn't have a place to go,” Fugate says. “Whenever it gets into these extreme, extreme temperatures, whether it's hot or cold, more often we see it in the cold. People just don't have a don't have any options.”

A man gestures toward a tangle of tarps that cover a car parked next to a sidewalk.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
David Murphy describes how he and his pit bulls sweat out the hot weather beneath tarps that cover his car parked near reStart.

Murphy, 42, has owned Felony and Red Dog for three years. Near his makeshift tent at 9th Street and Harrison, he’s also improvised a dog run with their leashes attached to a cord running along a fence. Bowls of dry dog food and water sit nearby as he plays with the two red-nosed, red brindles.

If forced to choose between his dogs and a cool place to stay, Murphy says the last thing he would do is leave his dogs behind.

“I’m not giving them up. I’ve had friends, I’ve had family,” Murphy says. “No one’s here but the dogs, man. They’re loyal.”

Fugate says KC Pet Project occasionally goes into homeless camps to administer to people with their pets. They’ve even been able to give people vouchers for housing if their animals are vaccinated.

But getting them to surrender their animals is another story.

Josh Henges, Kansas City’s houseless prevention coordinator, says programs like Home Away from Home are only patches. A competitive housing market makes it nearly impossible for anyone with dogs to find housing, especially for people who are coming out of homelessness.

“We are losing this battle because we’re doing everything the same,” Henges says. “It’s gotta switch. And in that switch there’s gonna be pain and discomfort and frustration.”

“And it starts with stuff like this,” he adds.

Dulin says he suggested that Murphy put up his dogs for foster care while he tries to find permanent housing and a full-time job.

“He literally broke down and started crying,” Dulin says. “He would rather go without the services he needs before giving them up for adoption or anything.”

Murphy gets emotional talking about his dogs, or even hinting at the suggestion of giving them up. He says using the temporary care program at KC Pet Project does not interest him at all.

“That’s not loyalty,” he says looking at the two dogs at his feet. “They didn’t pawn me off.”

As KCUR’s general assignment reporter and visual journalist, I bring our audience inside the daily stories that matter most to the people of the Kansas City metro, showing how and why events affect residents. Through my photography, I seek to ensure our diverse community sees itself represented in our coverage. Email me at carlos@kcur.org.
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