Dana Gentry

(Nevada Current) Four days sick and off work cost Steve (who asked that we not use his full name) his room in a weekly motel.

For a while he lived in his car with his pets. When the car broke down, he sold it and landed at the City of Las Vegas’s Homeless Courtyard, where he’s been since the summer. The outdoor facility, where clients sleep on the ground, is the only ‘shelter’ where man and his best friend are welcome, as long as a kennel is open.

“This situation isn’t forever. I’ll be in a place within a month,” he said during an interview.

Steve says he’s been asked before why he doesn’t rehome his pets instead of keeping them in his car, or at the Courtyard.

“I’d rather be dead than without them,” he says. “I have no family. They are all I have.”

At times he’s gone without eating. “My pets always have food. I’ve stolen from CVS before. For all of us. I can’t let them go hungry.”

“Some people might think if you’re in financial crisis, why in the world would this also be a situation, but pets are part of their family,” says Marlene Richter, executive director of Noah’s Animal House, which houses pets for clients of Shade Tree, a shelter primarily for women and children victimized by domestic abusers.

“From what city staff have seen at the Courtyard, these pet owners are very diligent in caring for their animals to the point that some would not enter the Courtyard without the ability to have a place for their pets to be near them,” says city spokesman Jace Radke.

The Courtyard can be a haven for homeless individuals who don’t want to give up their pets. But it can be hellish for dogs and cats whose owners, usually because of substance abuse or mental illness, neglect their pets, according to residents and volunteers who say they are reluctantly walking away from the Courtyard.

“It’s like banging your head against the wall,” says Cynthia Miyamoto, who has volunteered and provided kennels, pet food and cat litter at the Courtyard for four-and-a-half-years through Urban Underdogs, a non-profit that helps animals on the streets. “Nothing changes. Nothing gets done. Owners are not held accountable.  We have been talking about leaving for a long time but we kept thinking maybe we’ll say something that will click with the City.”

A month ago, Urban Underdogs notified the Courtyard’s management, Chicanos Por La Causa (CPLC), that they were leaving in December.

“This experience has taught our team a few important lessons: what you permit you promote; what you allow you endorse and what you condone you must own,” the volunteers wrote in a letter to the City.

CPLC declined to be interviewed.

“As we have since 2020, we will continue to care for the welfare of our clients and their beloved pets,” CPLC said in a statement provided via the City. “We appreciate and value the community of partners and individuals that help us empower them every day. There will be no interruption of services.”

In late November, Urban Underdog volunteers complained to Courtyard management about two large dogs crammed into one crate, and unable to lie down. The next day management informed the volunteers they were no longer needed.

“I blame the City of Las Vegas and CPLC because they don’t hold the owners accountable,” Miyamoto says. “And I’m not sure why.”

While some of the almost two dozen pets at the Courtyard are regularly cared for by their owners, others are left lying in their own waste, without food and water, according to volunteers and residents.

Louie, who has been at the Courtyard on and off “since the beginning,” according to Miyamoto, regularly chews up the cage to which he’s confined.

“They are so anxious in these kennels because they should be walked, and they are in there 24/7,” she says. “They use their mouths to bend the wires and eventually destroy them.”

In October, Animal Control officials issued a citation alleging cruelty and abandonment against Louie’s owner. The dog, according to residents, is sick and had nowhere to lie down in the excrement-covered cage.

“Dog unattended in kennel. Must have water, food and kennel cleaned regularly,” the citation says.

“It was only after Animal Control came that one of the residents was asked to clean Louie’s kennel,” the volunteers complained to CPLC. “Louie had been standing and laying in his own waste for approximately 15 hours.”

“Animal Control couldn’t take Louie and another dog belonging to the same owner because the Animal Foundation wasn’t accepting dogs,” says Steve.

The owner and the dogs were forced to leave and are not allowed to return to the Courtyard, according to residents and volunteers.

“They called us to get the dog,” says Sheryl Noori of StreetDogz, an organization that primarily provides medical care to unhoused pets. “When we got there he was gone.”

“Is it better for them to sleep on the street with their owner versus being confined and laying in their own waste?” asks Miyamoto. “Personally, I think it’s better for them to be on the street, but some people may not agree with me.”

Residents and volunteers say the Courtyard routinely boards animals whose owners are on the streets or in other shelters, resulting in significant neglect. The city says the facility requires no license as a kennel since it is government-owned.

“Animals are dumped there. Animals die there. And as an organization, the only thing we could do was to pull out,” says Miyamoto, who says she and the others feel complicit for not speaking up sooner. “We knew we’d be kicked out if we spoke up.”

City spokesman Radke says animal welfare authorities and Metro have been to the Courtyard and found no violations.  Radke says animal owners look after each others’ pets when their owners are gone. But residents say they are expressly prohibited from caring for others’ pets without the owner’s written permission. Some owners refuse to provide it.

The Courtyard has no staff members assigned to caring for the animals.

At Noah’s Animal House, clients are required to care for their own pets, says Richter, who also employs two people, seven days a week to care for some 40 animals on average, and fill in for clients who are ill, looking for work, or at other appointments.

“I have a full staff of animal care experts because a woman could come in the front door with a cat and need to go to the hospital. She could be on two crutches,” she says.

Home is where the dog is

Data on pet ownership among people who lack shelter is non-existent. Estimates range from 5% to as high as 25% in some locations.  Experts suggest homeless people who keep their pets benefit from their companionship, are able to maintain a sense of normalcy, avoid isolation, and are motivated by a sense of purpose.

Miyamoto says the Courtyard’s kennels were never meant as long-term housing for dogs and cats, but rather a convenience for clients as they await placement into housing. But housing placements facilitated by the Courtyard are rare, according to data on the city’s website.

Of 6,524 individuals who stayed at the Courtyard in 2021, only 32 transitioned to independent housing; 169 were “linked” to housing; and 19 received community referrals.

A $20,000 grant from Better Cities for Pets was to be partially used to pay rental deposits for pets, the Courtyard said last year. But Radke says the money is being used by the Courtyard to care for pets.

The city pays CPLC up to $3.6 million a year to run the Courtyard.