A tricky thing about disbanding Springfield’s largest homeless camp: The animals. – Springfield News-Leader
Feral cats that are living in the former homeless camp near Walmart on Kearney Street are neutered and released. Andrew Jansen/News-Leader
A small colony of feral cats make up the only remaining residents of a northeast Springfield no-man’s land.
The largest — a long-haired black Persian named Rosie — was once claimed by a homeless man, but she’s since been left behind and is now feral.
The land, a wooded area near the intersection of Kearney and Glenstone, had been a long-standing homeless camp until a recent massive effort to rid the property of people.
When news spread that the city planned to use heavy machinery to clear the property except for some taller trees, Joy Burk panicked.
Burk, who’s lived in the neighborhood since the ’70s, has fed the cats for about three years.
“I’ve always had a strong compassion for animals,” Burk said, as she mixed dry and wet cat food Friday morning near the property.
She said she often used to bring food for the campers, too.
“I would tell them I love them and there is a better way,” Burk said of the homeless people who were forced to vacate last week.
After the cat food was mixed, Burk pulled two metal traps out of her car containing two male cats that were neutered the night before. No longer concerned the cats would be crushed by a bulldozer, Burk released them and began calling for the others.
“Keeeee keeeee, come! Keeeee keeeee,” she called out. Within minutes, four more felines were feasting near Burk’s feet.
Since learning of the city’s plans, Burk has been working with the Springfield Animal Advocacy Foundation to trap the cats and get them fixed.
SAAF director Stacy Williams said a few people have reached out to her, concerned about the feral cats. Williams has done her best to calm people’s fears about the bulldozers.
“The cats aren’t going to stick around. They aren’t going to stand there while any kind of construction is going on,” Williams said. “The first piece of equipment, the first person — they are going to be gone.”
SAAF is a nonprofit spay and neuter clinic that works to control the feral cat population through trap/neuter/release. SAAF has traps that people can borrow to catch feral cats and will spay or neuter feral cats for $25. Feral cats are then released back to where they came from.
As of Friday, Burk had caught four of the feral cats. Burk said she has two more to catch: Big Rosie and a new one that just showed up.
Williams and Burk don’t think there are any kittens in the woods too small to get away when the property is cleared.
Of the four cats Burk has caught, two were male. One female was pregnant and the babies were aborted when it was spayed. The other female’s milk was drying up, indicating its kittens would be weaned by now.
“Once the kittens wean, they need to learn where the feeding source is. They follow their mom to the feeding source,” Williams said. “If there were kittens, (Burk) would have seen them by now.”
Burk said she suspects those kittens were probably killed by coyotes or the like.
The city had planned to clear the property except for trees over 6 feet high last week. The property owner put a stop to that by requesting an administrative hearing on the cleanup. That hearing will be later this month.
While the clearing is delayed, Springfield police are enforcing the no-trespassing ordinance as planned and will periodically check the site to ensure the homeless camp does not re-establish during the delay.
When police entered the property last Monday, they found no human trespassers.
Burk said she will continue to care for the cats and catch any new ones that show up to be spayed or neutered.
“I’ve got a heart as big as Texas,” she said, shrugging.
One male cat she calls Ke-Ke is very friendly and would make a nice pet, Burk said as she stroked his fur. But Burk’s dog has cancer, so she can’t have any new pets right now.
“I’ll have to feed and feed till I die. Hopefully someone will take over for me when I do,” she said.
What about the pets?
Officials say most of the pets that were at the camp remain with their caretakers.
After several years of working with the homeless, Julie Dawson was not surprised that most of the pet owners were not interested in giving up their animals in order to get into an emergency shelter in recent weeks.
“People don’t surrender their animals. They just don’t want to do it,” Dawson said. “They will sleep in the woods over going into a shelter, if they have to be separated from their animals.”
Dawson is the founder of Paws Pet Pantry, a nonprofit organization that helps poor and homeless people with pet food, supplies and vaccinations and vet care.
“Those animals are what get these people through PTSD, through mental issues and addiction issues,” she said. “They will forgo food of their own to feed their pet.”
She and other Paws volunteers were at the multi-agency response center set up next to the camp from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. June 5-9.
At the center, individuals were given immediate access to medical and mental health services, emergency shelter assessments, and help with obtaining IDs. Police began enforcing no trespassing on the property last Monday.
Dawson said she believes having homeless advocacy groups like Paws Pet Pantry and Gathering Friends — people who have been working with the homeless community in Springfield for years — at the center created a sense of safety and trust for the homeless people.
More than 230 homeless people came to the response center. According to information provided by Community Partnership of the Ozarks, of the 90 people who said they were living at the camp, 26 were pet owners.
And of those pet owners, one couple found foster care for their puppies and accepted shelter. Another person had two certified service animals and was allowed to take them into shelter.
The remaining 23 homeless pet owners, it seems, declined to surrender their animals so they could go into an emergency shelter.
Though they are not in an emergency shelter, those people had the opportunity to complete housing and shelter assessments and are encouraged to continue working with One Door to get into permanent housing where they can have their pets.
Paws Pet Pantry served 51 animals at the response center: 39 dogs, 11 cats and one bird. Dawson said about 35 animals were from the camp.
The bird, a 36-year-old cockatoo named Pretty Boy, turned out to be quite the entertainer, Dawson said.
The bird’s owner is living in an RV with no air-conditioning. Because Paws Pet Pantry was set up under a tent with water for the animals and blankets covering the hot asphalt, Pretty Boy was allowed to spend a lot of time there.
Dawson discovered quickly that Pretty Boy is picky when it comes to music. He would squawk angrily at Elton John. But put on a little Beatles or James Taylor and watch Pretty Boy go, she said.
“He dances and sways,” Dawson said, laughing. “He was a hoot. He put a smile on my face, even as tired and worn out as we were.”
Paws Pet Pantry provided Pretty Boy with a special bird chew toy to help keep his beak trim, a concrete perch to help keep his nails trim and bird seed. And a Paws volunteer is planning to fix Pretty Boy’s air conditioning.
For the other animals, Paws was able to provide food, supplies, flea and tick medicine, parvo and distemper prevention medicine and wormer.
“We felt good that we were able to go ahead and get the animals updated, vaccinated, wormed,” Dawson said. “Especially in an encampment with that many animals, if one has worms, they all have worms.”
Though the nonprofit does not normally help with feral cats, Paws Pet Pantry paid for the spay/neuter of the feral cats from the area.
City officials and the Ozarks Alliance to End Homelessness have been working on the plan to clear the homeless camp for a few months. The issue of what to do with pets has come up at every meeting, according to city spokesperson Cora Scott.
The shelters that carved out extra beds in anticipation of the camp cleanup — The Kitchen, Inc., Safe to Sleep, Victory Mission, Salvation Army and East Sunshine Church of Christ — do not have any type of kennels for animals.
The Humane Society of Southwest Missouri offered to take any owned or stray pets to put up for adoption. Only one kitten who was not claimed by any of the homeless people went to the humane society. It was adopted a few days ago.
The Office of Emergency Management brought in its certified animal response team to provide medical care and rabies vaccinations. But that team was only there for a few hours.
Multiple agencies have set up on Kearney Street to offer services to people living in the nearby homeless camp. Andrew Jansen/News-Leader
Jim O’Neal, former Springfield mayor and board member of the Ozarks Alliance to End Homelessness, was asked at a press conference last week what ways could the multi-agency response center be improved, if and when it is set up at other homeless camps.
Coming up with something for pet owners was among O’Neal’s responses.