Early Tuesday afternoon I took a drive to see a dog. I had heard about this bichon in the course of my work. A young woman living in poverty had gotten the dog from a relative two months before. She knew the dog had medical issues, but was unable to pay for a vet, and nobody was willing to take him off her hands after seeing him.

I thought I might be able to take him. Once I saw the dog, however, I knew the situation was far beyond my abilities. Poor Buddy was extremely ill and neglected. He had eye and ear wounds, was chewing on his paws, and recently there had been blood in his stool. I looked up rescue organizations and found one for bichons that had local foster families: Small Paws Rescue.

I assisted the dog’s owner in filling out the online form; we took the required photo of Buddy and sent it off. Within one minute — literally — her phone rang. It was Small Paws. They could see Buddy needed an animal hospital and wondered whether I would be able to assist in getting him there.

In short, this fantastic organization had arranged an appointment with a veterinarian. Buddy has had treatment, including eye surgery. He has been placed with a foster family and will be well-loved. Happy story.

Fast-forward to later that day. I stopped to get gas at a Holiday in St. Paul. I noticed two preteen boys hovering near the entrance and briefly wondered why they seemed to be scanning people who were coming and going. As I returned from prepaying (I was in the “prepay” section of town), the younger boy called out, “Ma’am, Ma’am …” My first thought was that maybe he was selling chocolates, as some kids do for their summer programs or camps. But instead he told me that he, his brother and his grandmother were staying at the hotel across the street and that they didn’t have enough money to pay their bill. He asked if I could help them out.

Now, I must acknowledge that I have been taken in a few times before by stories of hardship, only to find out that it was a well-known scam. So I questioned this young kid a bit. Finally, I directly asked, “Are you homeless?” He said they were, but that they had been staying in the hotel.

“So what are you going to do after tonight?”

“Try to find a cheaper hotel.”

I asked if they knew about shelter options, and he said they’d tried, but they were all full. I asked if they’d tried Mary’s Place, and he said “Is that Mary Jo’s? Yeah, they’re full.”

I gave the boy some money, and asked if I could have his grandmother’s number in case I could locate a shelter option for them. He quickly counted out the digits for me. He graciously thanked me, and then introduced me to his brother, who was walking back from McDonald’s, where he had gone to get them a free cup of ice. They waved and smiled as I pulled away.

When I got back to my office, I began to look into shelter options. There were no immediate options for this grandmother and her two grandchildren. Yes, everything is full. And most shelters have some sort of stipulation on them: men only, single women only, Ramsey or Hennepin County resident only, must apply in person and only during certain designated hours.

There are very few shelters for women and children. Mary’s Place is one of the most promising, and when I called there, just as the boy had said, they had no openings. Many of the places I tried did not have a live person answering the phone, nor an information line — just an answering machine. For a person without computer skills or access to the Internet, this process would be almost impossible. I did, however, find a few things that I could pass on to the boys’ grandmother.

The woman who answered the phone the next day was clearly elderly. I explained that I had met her grandchildren the previous day and that I had some information to pass along. She said she’d been caring for her grandchildren for two years, as her daughter has schizophrenia. She was visiting her in the hospital when I called. She talked about how hard it was for her to juggle everything, trying to take care of the boys, but also to care for her daughter. And she talked about the roadblocks she had reached in looking for shelter. She was grateful for the new information.

The grandmother also said that someone had called the police on her grandchildren the previous day. I would like to think that that person did so out of concern rather than irritation, but I’m not so sure. I think we’re a society that doesn’t like to see ugly things or things that make us uncomfortable. Two boys asking for money so that they and their grandmother don’t have to sleep on the street is both ugly and uncomfortable.

So there it is. A story of a dog in a terrible circumstance, who after one phone call received an abundance of care and concern. And a story of a family in a terrible circumstance, which, after many phone calls, still has no help.

Is anyone out there? Is anybody listening? Or is it just a dog’s life after all?


Theresa Voss, of Minneapolis, is a licensed psychologist.