Alumna’s Non-profit Brings ‘Love of Dogs’ to Homeless
On a typical morning, a line stretching more than 1200 people winds around the block at Ninth Avenue and 28th Street, where Church of the Holy Apostles’ soup kitchen offers free meals. Today, two tattooed men in their thirties casually lean over the metal barricade separating them from the rest of Chelsea’s sidewalk, speaking in Spanish and gesturing to one another. One man with Down syndrome tethers his red bicycle to the Church’s fence, and then joins the line. Another man wearing a blue raincoat and a navy beanie sits silently on the concrete. His eyes follow the stream of yellow school buses and taxis rushing past.
A woman with big sunglasses walks by with her small white dog, a Bijon Frise. She stops. She asks the man in the raincoat if he would like to pet her dog, Collette. He does.
A black and white Boston terrier scampers across 28th Street, followed by a red-haired woman in a denim jacket and tennis shoes. Smiling, she stops at the barricade.
“What are all these dogs here for?” a man in line asks.
“Oh … it’s called Happy Dog Tuesday,” his neighbor responds. “Every Tuesday they come, just to bring a smile to the faces.”
To the average passerby, the dogs and their owners seem to be dropping by on a whim. But they are actually part of a coordinated effort – the first of its kind in New York City – that provides dog therapy specifically for the homeless. Twenty-five-year-old King’s Alumna, Erin Miller, founded NYC Dog Mission to offer the City’s homeless population something more than material goods. NYCDM aims “to bring hope, compassion, and renewal of community to New York’s homeless through the love of dogs.”
“What we offer them is not relevant to whether they live or die,” Miller said. “But it’s relevant to who they are, and the inherent value that they have because they’re human. They’re worth our time.”
Her idea began forming while sitting amongst the congregation at Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Miller credits pastor Tim Keller for stirring her thoughts. After listening to his sermons in the fall of 2009, she felt “convicted that the way we are interacting with the homeless is a very consumerist and materialist way.” On her website (dogmission.org), Miller explains that the goal of serving the homeless “perhaps” shouldn’t be to one day not serve them anymore. Instead, we should “plug them into stable community and help them find their identity.”
She hasn’t always had this view. When she moved to New York from Durham, Connecticut to begin her freshman year at King’s, the homeless population in her Midtown neighborhood disturbed and shocked her. Although she wanted to help, she didn’t know how to respond.
“People asking for money was very un-American to me,” Miller said. “I didn’t want to give them money because I didn’t know what they were using it for. My thinking was constantly focused on the consumer part of their need.” She admits she rarely, if ever, wondered how the homeless people she encountered were doing emotionally.
After graduating in 2007, Miller got a husband, then a dog. Matt and Erin adopted Duncan, a Leonberger (or mix between a St. Bernard and a Newfoundland,) for his calm nature. He also commanded their attention because he was 24 pounds underweight. “It was love at first sight,” Erin Miller said.
While walking Duncan up and down Ninth Avenue, Miller started noticing a shift in attitude of her homeless neighbors. Instead of asking for money, they began asking to pet Duncan.
“They were more interested in the physical touch of my dog than an extra dollar I could spare,” she said.
On one of these walks, Miller heard a noise behind her: “the kissing noise people make to attract animals.” She turned around, but didn’t see anything. Then, a “really dirty, frail hand” reached out of an abandoned doorway. She approached the outstretched hand with Duncan to find a man in filthy jeans crouched in the corner.
“The guy started petting Duncan and talking to me about his past pets and just sharing his life with me,” she said. “It was just this really amazing interaction.”
By the time she left, the man “had a huge smile” and animatedly said goodbye to Duncan.
“At this point I was thinking, ‘I’ve been in New York for six years, and I’ve never been able to make a homeless person smile. And Duncan did it on his first try.’”
After that day, Miller decided she wanted to join a dog therapy organization working with the homeless. But to her surprise, she couldn’t find one. So she volunteered with the National Association for the Mentally Ill, which provides dog therapy for mentally ill people. After getting familiar with their program, she decided to start her own pilot program to specifically target the homeless.
From January to April 2010, Miller cut down time at work as an actress and producer in order to compile a budget and logistical plan for the organization. Redeemer’s annual Entrepreneurship Initiative, which awards $25,000 to the best non-profit proposal, pushed her to “get serious” and put the plan on paper.
NYC Dog Mission (NYCDM) partners with The Good Dog Foundation, which provides a dog therapy certification program, and Church of the Holy Apostles, the largest soup kitchen in Manhattan. Volunteers must first complete the six-week certification process with their dogs before visiting the men and women waiting in line outside the soup kitchen once a week. She delivered a presentation proposing NYCDM to a panel of judges and finished as a top five finalist.
Miller hopes to eventually branch out into several neighborhood soup kitchens, pay volunteers the $300 fee for dog therapy certification, and provide a dog car service to transport large dogs banned from the subway to their volunteer locations. In the meantime, five teams (a volunteer plus their dog is one team) commit to an hour each Tuesday morning at Holy Apostles in Chelsea. They provide their own transportation and certification.
Jan Weiss lives in the area and has volunteered with her Boston terrier, Sugar, for three months. She loves meeting the “fun people” in line. “I just spent 30 minutes talking to a guy about African politics,” Weiss said. “How cool is that?”
Although she calls herself “half-shy,” talking to strangers has been easier than she first thought. According to her, people love to talk to Sugar, which breaks the ice. And it’s helped Sugar too. “She was skittish,” Weiss said, explaining that she adopted Sugar from a rescue shelter. “But now she comes out of her shell. [Sugar] knows when we are coming and gets excited, and there are certain people here that look forward to seeing her.”
Although a few of the soup kitchen guests are afraid of dogs and some cross their arms rather than pet them, most of the guests at least crack a smile when the volunteers walk by. Wendell Rhone talked to Weiss and enjoyed petting Sugar. “Do they come every Tuesday?” he asked. “That’s so nice. I like dogs.”
NYCDM hopes to increase the effectiveness of their partner organizations, and Miller believes that they are succeeding at Holy Apostles. She claims the dogs “change the mood of the whole day” at the soup kitchen, and that the Holy Apostles volunteers encounter “less fights, less tension, and less anxiety” on Tuesdays.
Holy Apostles Volunteer Coordinator Steve Santos agrees with Miller and appreciates the contribution NYCDM adds to the Church’s program. “The dogs add much to our program by giving them a nice diversion,” Santos said. “They feel nice knowing the dogs are coming to see them.”
One soup kitchen guest even thanked Miller and Duncan with a card. The front features the Empire State Building and the inside reads, “To Duncan and his Lady: Thanks for sharing love and hope in a cold world. Best regards, Angela.” At the very top Angela wrote, “Dog equals God spelled backwards.”
Miller believes that her own Christian faith impacts how she interacts with the homeless. “I see every single one of them as made in the image of God. I don’t see them as a waste of society or a waste of productivity, even when they have a mental illness,” she said. “I like to tell them that they’re valuable and they’re worth so much more than perhaps they know.”
About Duncan’s secret of success at the soup kitchen, Miller says, “There’s no baggage with him. No judgment. No ulterior motives. Duncan’s not trying to get anything from them. He’s just pure, unadulterated affection. Love. That's it."