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Full Tummy Project feeds homeless people's pets

East Orlando organization runs soup kitchen for animals

Photo: N/A, License: N/A

Photo: Photos courtesy of Pets of the Homeless, License: N/A

Photos courtesy of Pets of the Homeless

"He had a rolled-up 30 pound bag of dog food in there," says Patel, who was so struck by the sight that she started collecting dog food in a donation box at the University of Doglando. She started to bring bags of food with her when she was out and about. "I would drive all around Orlando, from UCF area to Bithlo … and give it to the homeless that owned dogs," she says.

On Thanksgiving 2011, she gathered a group of volunteers to hold an event where low-income people could come pick up free dog food. It was such a success that Patel suggested that the Doglando Foundation organize a program that would distribute free food for pets on a weekly basis – a sort of canine soup kitchen. In 2012, the Doglando Foundation adopted the project, named it the Full Tummy Project and set about making connections with people who needed their help.

At first, Zaldivar says, people were reluctant: "We would show up to the Outreach Center and no one knew who we were," she recalls. "It took a few months for the community to accept us – they were scared of our intentions."

Now many of the volunteers are on a first-name basis with the people they serve. More than 150 families are registered for the program. "And we have new families every week," she says.

As homelessness has risen in cities and towns across the nation, so has the number of homeless people who own pets. It's estimated that there are 3.5 million homeless people in the United States, and their reasons for being homeless vary – mental health problems and substance abuse contribute to homelessness, but as the economy continues to plod along, a growing number of the homeless are former working-class people who've lost their jobs, then their homes. Many of them owned pets before they lost everything.

"Between 5 to 10 percent of homeless people have dogs or cats, and in some [rural] areas of the country, it's as high as 24 percent," says Renee Lowry, executive director of Pets of the Homeless, a national organization that helps provide food, medical care and assistance to homeless people who need help caring for their animals. According to Pets of the Homeless, there are no hard statistics on homeless pet owners – the department of Housing and Urban Development doesn't require organizations seeking funds for homeless programs to track that information – but anecdotally, the problem is big enough that Pets of the Homeless now has partners in all regions of the country, as well as a handful in Canada. There are 443 veterinary offices, pet stores and community centers that act as collection sites for food donated to help the homeless feed their pets, and more than 300 soup kitchens, community organizations and nonprofits work to distribute the food to those who need it. (The University of Doglando is one of the collection sites listed on the Pets of the Homeless website, petsofthehomeless.org.)

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