Homeless people helping homeless pets through pilot program

Matthew Lane • Oct 6, 2019 at 12:00 PM

KINGSPORT — Just because someone is homeless, that doesn’t mean they don’t care about the city.

Deep down, many homeless people are just like you and me. They want a good job, a safe place to live and to give back to the community.

This last point was made clear recently when a group of homeless people, with the help of Hunger First, paid a visit to the Kingsport Animal Shelter to volunteer for the afternoon, feeding the animals, cleaning out the cages and helping out wherever possible.

It’s a pilot program conceived by officials with PETWORKS: Kingsport Animal Services and Hunger First.

“These homeless people, because they’re homeless doesn’t mean they don’t care about the area or life,” said Sullivan County Commissioner Joe Herron, a longtime advocate for the shelter and one of the people who helped make the pilot program a reality. “This (program) gives them an opportunity to feel good about themselves, be productive and come up here and work at the shelter and help the animals out.”

About a month ago, the idea came to Herron’s mind and he believes it might have been divinely inspired. It’s something that’s been weighing on him, especially given all of the discussion recently about the homeless situation downtown.

He met with Michael Gillis, director of Hunger First, to discuss how to get some of the homeless people from downtown to the shelter. Then, a meeting between Herron and PETWORKS officials took place to see if the program could become a reality.

In the end, it seemed like it could.

“These people were not forced to come here. They came because of love and concern for the area in their hearts and they came to give back,” Herron said. “At the same time, these good people can feel good about themselves knowing they helped the animals.”

Donna Davidson, shelter manager for PETWORKS, said the homeless volunteers would be doing such things as cleaning the kennels, washing laundry, walking the dogs and possibly mowing the grass or other chores employees normally do throughout the week.

At this time, there’s not a set schedule for when other homeless volunteers will be coming to the shelter, but officials say they hope other homeless people will be willing to participate. Just getting to know the people is how Gillis went about selecting which ones would be going to the shelter to volunteer.

“In light of all the negativity on the homeless, we’re trying to work to show the positive side of everything,” Gillis said. “If you sat down and interrupted a homeless person’s day, you would find out there is some value in there.”

Julian Price is 23 years old and has been homeless for about two years.

“Personally, I’d like to come back because it’s something I’m interested in,” Price said. “I like animals, I’m here and I wouldn’t mind volunteering for them. I’m an animal lover myself and think I fit in perfectly fine.”

Michelle James has been homeless for about 18 months. She and her husband used to run a fencing and decking company and simply fell on some hard times.

“Whether it’s people or animals, we wanted them to be safe,” James said. “We’re big dog lovers and if you just do anything for the community, then that’s wonderful. We also pray and hope it can help us in the long run too.”

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