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August 19, 2013

Home Is Where the Dog Is

Hawaii's K9 Kokua assists homeless dog owners.

All Animals magazine, September/October 2013

Mahe Kukahiko with Karona. Marco Garcia/For The HSUS

by Karen E. Lange

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 (Hawaiian for “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. “That’s my family,” he says. “They’re just like my kids. They give me love.” And they inspire life changes: A tender moment with Honey Girl convinced Blau to stop taking drugs.

A while back, a social services agency offered Blau a place to live. If one of his pets qualified as a therapy dog, he could’ve 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 cook rice for them. When I run out of [that], I feed them my food. … There’s no way I’d give them [up].”

Local organization K9 Kokua (“Help”) is assisting people like Blau. At the beach, where homeless people camp in a grove of kiawe trees, volunteers distribute dog food and other supplies. They offer veterinary care and training and arrange for microchipping and spay/neuter surgeries—a requirement for public housing. And, with help from HSUS Hawaii state director Inga Gibson, they try to change or 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—and where landlords worry about issues like liability, property damage, and noise.

“How many people would come off the beach if they allow pets [in 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 on the beach 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.”

Duke, whose job doesn’t pay enough for him to easily afford housing, lives in a tent with 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. ... Before him, I just had me. Now, I gotta take care of him.”

Neal Eric Blau with his dogs Mele and Honey Girl. Marco Garcia/For The HSUS

K9 Kokua - Oahu, Hawaii

How it started

In 2003, Kale Lyman—now K9 Kokua’s executive director—kept seeing a dog on the street during her commute to work. She finally stopped to meet the dog’s owners, who were homeless and lacked resources to care for their dogs. She gave them dog food and treats, and they introduced her to other homeless people with dogs.

A gracious plenty

The all-volunteer nonprofit provides dog food, flea and tick treatment, collars and leashes, microchipping, spay/neuter, grooming, emergency veterinary care, and behavioral advice for dogs owned by Honolulu and Maui counties’ homeless people, including victims of domestic violence. It hopes to have kennels at homeless shelters so that more homeless pet owners will come in from the streets.


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