double tap picture to expand gallery
Ever since his mother died and he became homeless, Neal Eric Blau has been watched over by two companions: a pair of pit bulls named Mele (“Song”) and Honey Girl, who live with him in the bed of a pickup truck parked at a beach on the west coast of Oahu, Hawaii.
Blau doesn’t often get to see his children or grandchildren, but he wakes up mornings to the dogs’ happy faces, and as he sleeps beneath the truck’s cap, they’re by his side. “That’s my family,” says Blau. “They’re just like my kids. They give me love.” And they inspire life changes: It was Honey Girl who convinced Blau to stop taking drugs. “She looked at me, and she talked to me, and I sat there, and I just gave [it] up.”
A while back, a social services agency offered Blau a place to live. If he got one of his pets certified as a therapy dog, he could have brought her, too—but they would not allow two animals, so Blau stayed put. “My dogs mean more to me than anything else. When I run out of dog food, I feed them rice. When I run out of [that], I feed them my food. … There’s no way I’d give them [up].”
A local organization called K9 Kokua (“Help”) is working to assist people like Blau with caring for their dogs and finding housing that accepts pets. The group originally set out to address the needs of the animals, but quickly realized their owners would need help, too, says Jae Bonarek, executive assistant director of K9 Kokua.“The general public [thinks], ‘Are you stupid? Give up the dog for housing,’” Bonarek says. “They don’t understand.”
At the boat harbor, where homeless people are camped in a little grove of kiawe trees, volunteers distribute dog food and other supplies. They offer veterinary care, training, and get dogs microchipped and spayed and neutered—a requirement for a pet to enter public housing. And, with help from HSUS Hawaii state director Inga Gibson, they try to find ways around rules that force homeless people to choose between their pets and a roof over their heads. It’s a challenge on an island where the cheapest studio apartments go for $800 a month.
“How many people would come off the beach if they allow pets [in homeless shelters]?” asks Mahe Kukahiko, K9 Kokua’s ambassador in the camp. “Practically everybody.”
Kukahiko lives in a tent with Karona, a Lab mix she adopted when a couple abandoned the dog, who was sick with parvo. Next door there’s someone with a bunch of Chihuahuas. Nearly every tent household has a dog. Partly, it’s a matter of safety in a community where you can’t lock your door. But it’s more than that. “Animals offer a special comfort,” says Gibson. “They’re not judgmental. They don’t care if you live in a truck.”
Some shelters will allow people to move in with dogs, if the pets are identified as service animals who help their owners deal with physical or emotional disabilities. Usually, though, they won’t accept animals weighing more than 25 pounds; there’s also a liability issue if a dog hurts a person. Landlords worry that dogs could damage property or annoy neighbors. Gibson and K9 Kokua work with landlords to get exceptions, and hope to get funds to create transitional housing that allows pets.
Until then, Duke, whose job doesn’t pay enough for him to easily afford housing, will be living in a tent at the harbor with his dog Hookano (“Stubborn”). His mother has said he can move back in with her, but not with the dog. Duke can’t bring himself to do it. “[Hookano] came into my life at a time when I needed some responsibility—something to love and love me back,” he says. “Before him, I just had me. Now, I gotta take care of him.”