IMG_2222Kerry Stackhouse is a 49-year-old woman who has struggled to find long-term stable housing for the last several years. She is single but she often uses the pronoun “we” when describing her experiences with homelessness. The other parts of her “we” are Zoe, a Jack Russell Terrier, and Darwin, an American Staffordshire Terrier.

The dogs became central to Kerry’s world 10 years ago when she owned her own house in Fullerton, California, had a long-career as a nurse, and “did a lot of animal rescue,” which is how Zoe and Darwin came to her. Now the dogs help her as service dogs. She needs two to keep her balance because a medication she takes often makes her dizzy.

During those 10 years, Kerry has been challenged by family disputes—including threats against her dogs—job burnout, PTSD, and the high cost of living in California. She came to Eugene with a friend in pursuit of a better life in late 2013. Since then, periods of traditional housing and full-time employment have mixed with spells of living out of a tent and scrambling to survive with the resources available to homeless people in this area—and even a short stint in jail. The one constant source of strength and hope in her life has been her dogs — even though they sometimes add to the difficulty of her getting housing.

“I don’t believe in acquiring animals when you’re homeless for the most part,” she says, “but I don’t believe in just shoving them off to the pound because the chips are down for a little while. I feel like this is temporary for me.”

Kerry is at the top of the waiting list for a tent platform in a Community Supported Shelter’s Safe Spot camp, but the dogs complicate that arrangement, too. CSS limits the number of “pets” allowed in each camp. Because Kerry’s dogs are service dogs they may not count against that total, but she was still waiting for a spot in mid-May, living with a friend in a shed on agricultural land outside Junction City. That temporary arrangement only works because her friend has a car to get her into Eugene to access services, like a counselor she sees regularly at the Center for Family Development, and to pursue housing.

She looks forward to getting in the camp to have a place where she can be safe and establish some kind of routine to rebuild her life. “Being a woman out here alone, it’s got to the point where I’m getting hit an average of once a week by men out here, “ she says. “That’s how I got my tooth knocked out.”

She lost her tooth when a 6-foot-2 man punched her straight in the face in an altercation that landed her in jail. She was paying rent to stay in the living room of an elderly friend for a few days. At the owner’s request, she had asked the man and a companion who were smoking meth in an outside shed to leave. After the man punched her, the situation escalated and the man’s female companion struck Kerry and kicked Zoe, the smaller of her two dogs. At that point, Kerry retaliated and ended up being charged with a felony, which she was prepared to fight legally until she found out her dogs would be sent to the pound. She changed her plea to guilty and, because she didn’t have a previous criminal record, her sentence was a total of 30 days, which she had already served. She got out and got her dogs.

“I can’t be around those kind of places,” she says. “I knew how that house was but we’d been outside all winter. We just wanted to be warm for a little bit and have a shower.”

Kerry is hoping to get into the Roosevelt Safe Spot, because she has a friend there, or the Chambers camp, rather than the new Safe Spot for Women. She says she has a hard time being around only women. But she recognizes how important it is to have a camp dedicated to women.

“A lot of the homeless women out here have been raped,” she says, “or they get held up, taken advantage of. One woman had $400 on her food stamps [card] and some guy used it all and kicked her out in the rain. We’re victimized out here.”

Kerry hopes the security and a routine she could establish at a Safe Spot will help her get part-time work. “I always work. I’ve got to work,” she says. During her first period living in a tent in 2014, she worked six days a week, paying a dog sitter, taking two buses to get to the La Quinta Inn, where she worked as a housekeeper. She saved enough to rent a house. But then her hours got cut and she couldn’t have a roommate so she was evicted in April 2015 and she, and her dogs, have been scrambling ever since.

She still believes this is a temporary situation for her —“It’s gone on a little longer than I planned”—and is working on several other longer-term housing options in addition to the Safe Spot. But until something else works out, she wants to be around the kind of people who the
Safe Spots attract. “Upwardly mobile homeless people,” she calls them. “It’s like winning the lottery for the homeless to get into one of the camps.”

“The people who try to be in a spot like that, they have goals,” she says. “ A lot of these people out here, they have no intention of changing. They’ve given up. I’ve gotten there, too, where I almost think, ‘gosh, I’m chronically homeless.’ But I don’t want to go across that line.”

“I try to stay positive,” she says. “Maybe because I’ve been spoiled my whole life, it’s kind of a confidence builder to know that I can go sleep out in a tent.”

What’s kept her from giving up hope on those cold nights in a tent, or when she returns to her tent spot to find a notice from the police that she has to move—again, or when she has to navigate through the often frightening world of drugs and drink and mental illness and violence that plague the homeless on the streets?

“My dogs, I think. I need them more than they need me and they ‘re getting older now and I feel they need a little bit of comfort in their old age. My big one is getting a little crippled and I want him to have a nice comfortable place to land, not some gravel on the railroad tracks. They’ve brought me through some hard times and it’s time for me to get them housed again. “