Almost Gus

Sunday noon. A volunteer at the county animal shelter led him into a graveled fenced area where I was waiting. Apprehension gripped me. Was it finally time to get a dog? And was it this particular dog, Gus?

Seven years had passed I euthanized Sonny the Husky after a remarkable 17-year run that also included time with Ray the shepherd and Jo Jo the rottweiler. I said goodbye to Sonny after a final visit to the beach with her as the process of my personal extinction and state-sponsored annihilation were just beginning and I didn’t know if I would or could survive.

A volunteer released Gus from the leash and the shepherd/husky mix darted to a far corner and hid under a bench. I called out to him. Nothing. The volunteer called out to him. Nothing. Gus stood up and sniffed around the fence. I tossed some treats his direction. No interest.

It would take serious commitment to restore Gus’ health and spirit. Was he too far gone? Was I ready to take on this responsibility? I’d never owned a dog in a big city nor away from the beach.

A great friend sent me a link to Gus’ profile on the shelter’s web site. He’d been there for a few weeks. His face looked incredibly sad. He was described as despondent. Someone had rescued him under an elevated freeway near the industrial section of inner southeast Portland, across the Willamette River from downtown. It was the area of a dozen or so long-time, addled and squalid homeless encampments, many that had been swept and re-swept. Gus’ rescuer speculated that the dog’s owner was a former resident of one of the encampments. Who really knew?

Naturally, I was drawn to Gus’ story. Our intersection seemed cosmic. A writer who interacts with the homeless and writes almost exclusively about them adopts a homeless dog who was formerly living in a homeless encampment. It was practically a Hallmark movie of the type Hollywood should be making.

Gus finally trotted over—to the volunteer, not me. He hid behind her. I talked to Gus, sat down on the ground, and beckoned him over. No go.

I tossed a few more treats at him. He hesitated, then ate them. I scooted closer and held out my hand. I stood up. Gus came up and I petted him. He was at least 20 pounds underweight. He didn’t really respond to the petting but he didn’t cringe, either. I suppose that was a start.

The decision was made: I was taking Gus home, but not right away. I wanted a day to think it over and prepare everything. Shelter policy would not allow a hold on Gus, but I didn’t think anyone would adopt him because the facility was only open for a few more hours and was closed the next day, Labor Day.

I said goodbye to Gus and told the woman at the counter I was adopting Gus. She was ecstatic and took my contact information. Everyone loved Gus and rooted for a miracle, but no one had yet met him in the fenced area for an introduction and possible adoption. I was the first and only person who had shown an interest.

Out in the parking lot I started crying. I called my friend and gave her the good news. Emotion overwhelmed me on the drive home. I found myself crying again in Pet Smart as I bought $300 worth of dog supplies. Back at the house, the furniture got rearranged.

A couple hours later, the phone rang. I didn’t recognized the number so I let it go to voice mail. I listened to it. It was the animal shelter: someone had adopted Gus and taken him home!

I was devastated and angry at myself. I had violated the cardinal rule of helping any human or animal in distress and connected to the homeless crisis. Act right then and there! You might not get a second chance.

Several hours later, I sat on the back deck drinking a glass of red wine and watching the neighbor’s massive Port Orford cedar sway in the breeze. My soul remained pulverized from the loss of Gus and my inaction. Still, I consoled myself with the knowledge that he had a family that would do everything they could to resurrect his spirit because they took home such a damaged dog in the first place.

I made the decision not to visit the shelter’s website and research another dog. Adoption would happen when it spontaneously happened, such as both times strays came into my life, Ray found along Highway 101 near Cascade Head, Jo Jo at a boat ramp on the Nestucca River. That spontaneity might involve driving to the shelter on a lark, choosing a dog without doing a lick of research, and taking him home right then and there.

Hundreds of tiny birds chirped in the safety of the cedar tree. Socialist squirrels appeared in the yard soliciting their freeloading handout of peanuts.

As I tossed peanuts their way, my mind returned to the shelter and how efficient and friendly the adoption service had operated, despite regular bad press in the local media.

Was there a model in there for serving the homeless? Not as in homeless people were like caged homeless cats and dogs waiting to be adopted, but something as expedient as me walking in and walking out in 30 minutes with a dog that needed housing?

A light bulb illuminated. Actually, it came on so bright it blew up.

Suppose the dozens of non profit homeless service providers funded by taxpayers were forced by the government agencies allegedly overseeing them to set up monthly events in various areas of Portland. There, the providers with keys to housing met homeless men and women in those neighborhoods who wanted into transitional and/or permanent housing and the providers GOT THEM INTO HOUSING RIGHT THEN AND THERE!

No appointments later to travel to the Old Town abyss for help. No referrals. No ID. No websites. No apps. No delays. No waiting lists. Minimal background checks. It’s an emergency so treat it like one. A single 15-minute interview. A stamp of approval and a ride to housing RIGHT THEN AND THERE.

Why in the world hasn’t this model been tried in Portland? What about a one-time pilot project? If such an event were held in my neighborhood and available housing actually existed, I would corral—no dragoon—ten homeless people that want off the streets and assist them into housing in one day. Imagine that going down all over the city once a week for six months.

If I were in charge, I’d call it Operation Gus.