The rain continued to pour as she maneuvered her bicycle, keeping its wheels aligned within the narrow six-inch margin that lay between cars and trucks speeding down the road and a treacherous ditch that sloped off to the side. Soaking wet, Dre mounted the last of the hills, the Licking County Humane Society visible in the distance.
Only 24 hours before, Titan, her 11-month-old pitweiler-bullmastiff mix, had unexpectedly gone astray. Since then, Dre has enjoyed no sleep and jumped through numerous hoops that have landed her here: one mile away from recovering her best friend.
Dre has been unsheltered for the better part of the last eight years and has relied on Titan for both physical and emotional survival. That’s why when Titan went missing on Oct. 17, it was more than missing a wagging tail or a slobbery kiss for Dre. It was losing a part of her world.
Her story of four-legged companionship is one of many.
Many unsheltered residents of Licking County own dogs. With every day bringing unexpected outcomes, they often view their dogs as more than just pets, but as partners in survival.
“He’s my everything, my world,” Dre said.
Dre adopted Titan last January in the midst of an Ohio cold spell. That night she received a call from a friend who needed help delivering his dog Marie’s second litter of puppies.
At the time, Dre was camped five miles away on the other side of town. Her only mode of transportation was her old Shwinn bicycle. She made the trip and helped deliver nine puppies, seven of which survived.
The first puppy born was different from the rest, Dre remembers.
“He wasn’t like the others,” she said. “From the moment he was born he kind of did his own thing.”
In the hours and days that followed, Dre developed a connection with the first-born and decided to take him in as her own. While naming her newfound friend took some time, she settled on Titan.
“I never had dogs growing up so bringing Titan into my life was definitely an adjustment, but he truly changed my life for the better,” she said. “I was on the phone non-stop calling everyone I knew and asking if they’d seen [him], but the good news never came. I felt hopeless, like the world was crashing down on me. I couldn’t sleep all night.”
The next morning, Dre called the Licking County Humane Society right when they opened. They informed her that Titan had been found the night before and could be recovered for a $75 fee.
It was $75 she didn’t have.
“Money’s always been tight for me, but for the first time in my life it didn’t matter in the slightest,” Dre said. “I was ready to do anything to get my dog back.”
That’s exactly what she did. That morning she pawned nearly all of her jewelry and a number of other sentimental belongings to earn a little more than half of what she needed. The rest came from her uncle, who took a liking to Titan and understood what all he meant to Dre.
Just barely collecting the necessary fee, Dre gradually made her way to the shelter.
At the time, Dre was camped on the east end of downtown Newark, seven long miles away from the Licking County Humane Society – a journey not cut out for an old bicycle, certainly not one facing the mild mist falling on a cool autumn afternoon.
Dre’s route covered major roads with speeding cars and little space for her bicycle.
“Took me about two hours to get over there,” Dre said. “It was hard dodging big semitrucks moving at speeds way above the speed limit, but I made it, just barely.”
Dre arrived just four minutes before the humane society closed for the day.
“The woman was about ready to close up when I got there,” said Dre. “I was not in the mood to take no for an answer.”
Ensuring that all the paperwork checked out, Titan was brought out from the back and reunited with his mom.
“When you claim a dog they ask you all these questions making sure everything’s legit and what not,” Dre said. “But none of that mattered when they opened that door and Titan came rushing out, almost knocking me over. He was so excited.”
Dre’s relationship of unwavering love and compassion exists across the unsheltered community. These animals become integral to their survival, offering not just companionship, but a shared experience in facing life’s unrelenting challenges.
Linda Mossholder, a dedicated volunteer at the Newark Homeless Outreach and an avid dog lover, said these dogs provide much needed physical assistance in terms of warmth and protection, but more importantly they provide emotional support for people battling prevalent issues of loneliness and depression.
“He’s more than a friend, honestly,” Keith Bennett said of his 15-year-old boxer named Doge. “He’s been by my side through everything life’s thrown at me. Everything from warmth to protection to a great feeling of responsibility…he makes sure I’m okay and I make sure he’s okay.”
Bennett recently registered Doge as a support dog, a step that formalized the crucial emotional support role Doge plays in his life. This designation allows Doge to accompany him in public areas where pets might not typically be allowed, ensuring continuous support and companionship.
According to a study conducted by researchers from the University of Ottawa, 91% of people who are unsheltered have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lives and up to 99% have experienced childhood trauma. This spans tattered histories of physical, emotional and sexual abuse which many times cause a lack of trust in others.
“Having the unconditional love and trust that comes from a dog combats this distrust as their pets can be extremely comforting and important.” Mossholder said.
This relationship among Licking County unsheltered residents and their pets has been recognized by the Licking County Humane Society as well. This past summer, the Humane Society started the Bright Spots Clinic through a partnership with the Salvation Army Newark Corps.
The Bright Spot Clinic, funded in-part by the Kenneth Scott Charitable Trust, visits the Salvation Army once a month, offering professional veterinarian services to unsheltered individuals. These services include vaccinations, micro-chipping as well as consultation for mild health issues.
“Our mission is to help people keep their pets and to overcome barriers that limit them from doing so,” said Lori Carlson, Executive Director of the Licking County Humane Society.
Eligibility for Bright Spot’s free veterinary services is determined by a voucher program from either the Salvation Army or an LCHS humane agent who verifies the need for assistance.
Bright Spots, established in August, provides care to an average of 15 pets at each of their monthly pop ups. If a follow-up appointment is required, patients are scheduled and informed of the necessary clinic to attend.
Carlson says it’s been very successful.
“Unsheltered members of our community take care of their pets. They really do,” Carlson said. “It’s just about providing them with all the resources they need to do so.”
Kelley Smith, the program and communications director at LCHS, said Bright Spots has been a win for the community, and helped people access vital care for their pets.
“There are a number of unsheltered persons who will absolutely put their pets’ needs before their own,” Smith said. “We want to try to keep pets and their people together because that is, sometimes, the only bright spot this population has, and the sacrifices they make for these animals would just break your heart.”
Dre was first in line at the Nov. 6 Bright Spot pop-up, watching the day break, her four-legged partner quietly sitting beside her.
Jack Wolf writes for TheReportingProject.org, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s Journalism program, which is sponsored in part by the Mellon Foundation and donations from readers. Sign up for The Reporting Project newsletter here.