Keeping people and their pets together

Story highlights

  • Lori Weise noticed pets when she worked near Skid Row in Los Angeles
  • She and a friend started helping, and eventually she created Downtown Dog Rescue
  • Do you know a hero? Nominations are open for 2015 CNN Heroes

Los Angeles (CNN)Twenty years ago, Lori Weise was working at a furniture factory near Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. She saw hundreds of people living on the streets.

Then she began noticing something else: Many of them had pets.
Weise and a co-worker started befriending the animal owners and asking how they could help. Time and again, Weise heard the same story: The dog was their best friend, a part of their family.
But without the means to care for their animals, many were forced to give them up.
"Such a simple thing as a dog license could keep that pet with that person," said Weise, adding that she often met people who would feed their dog before themselves.
Today, Weise runs Downtown Dog Rescue, a nonprofit that provides resources to help low-income families keep and care for their pets.
The organization offers free services such as spay/neuter and vaccines as well as basic pet supplies. It also operates a kennel where dogs can receive temporary or long-term care.
Each year, the group helps around 2,000 animals stay with their owners and out of shelters.
Weise's organization tries to reach families before they have to surrender their pets.
"We want to help people manage their lives and their animals more compassionately," Weise said.
CNN spoke with Weise about her efforts. Below is an edited version of the conversation:
CNN: You've been doing this work for 20 years. What was it like when you first started?
Lori Weise: The area near Skid Row was really different. There were buildings that were just boarded up. It was blocks and blocks of homeless people or people living outside in tents.
I would pass people that were living on the street with their animals. They didn't have a collar. They were feeding their dog, say, rice and whatever food they could get.
We'd just start talking and ask them, "How can we help you?" A lot of times people needed bottled water. They needed dog food. The thing that was unique about us is that there were no forms to fill out. It's just, "OK, we're going to take you for your word." So we would just buy the supplies with our own money.
CNN: Your group works with two animal shelters to reach people before they surrender their pet. How does it help?
Weise: So many times people just feel they have to surrender their animal. It's their only option. In reality, if they understood all the resources that already exist for them, or someone to guide them through the process, they are glad and happy to keep their animal.
The model of the Shelter Intervention Program is really to accept the person just as they are coming to the shelter today. We've had people break down, their knees buckle. They're on the ground just shaking because they love their dog so much.
Our job is to find out, who is this person? How can we best help them? We pay for supplies such as a doghouse, collars, leashes, dog beds, food. We offer spay and neuter, vaccines, microchipping. We pay for dog licenses. We are offering them as much as we can, up to everything they need so they can keep their pet.
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CNN: Where is the need greatest?
Weise: The two places that we concentrate most are Watts and Compton. The areas are densely populated, and there's lots of animals; there are a lot of people that are either not employed or are underemployed.
Watts is an area that doesn't even have a veterinarian. We're the only mobile dog clinic that comes to Compton to offer free spay and neuter and vaccinations.
CNN: You offer rescue dogs for adoption. How does that work?
Weise: A couple different ways. We rescue dogs from the shelters, and sometimes families will not be able to keep their dogs.
We own our property where our dog kennel is built, so we have our rescue dogs that live here. And we invite people that are interested in adopting to come to the kennel, and we really talk about what's going to be the best dog for their lifestyle and try to match them up with that dog.
The kennel is set up like a little house. So the dogs kind of get an idea what it's like to live in a home before hopefully they go to their forever home.
CNN: You also now run the furniture company originally located in Skid Row, where all this essentially began. What's its connection to the nonprofit?
Weise: The two are very intermingled. We have the means to hire people. So when somebody tells me, "I've been out of work for three years and I'm looking for a job," (I say) "Hey, I've got a job in our packing department. You could start next week." Most of the time people really do want to work.
In the past 20 years we've hired about three dozen people who have come through the program.
This is more than just animal welfare or keeping pets out of the shelter. This is social welfare; it's social justice. Helping people find jobs, find apartments. Writing letters of recommendation. Talking to landlords, negotiating things. Showing people how to look for a job, how to go on an interview. Just navigating basic services that people deserve.
My favorite part of my work is knowing about a resource and sharing it with somebody who has lost all hope.
Want to get involved? Check out the Downtown Dog Rescue website at www.downtowndogrescue.org and see how to help.