Without a home or any immediate family for support, some homeless people lean heavily on the unwavering companionship of a dog.

Now, the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland is working with Portland’s Oxford Street shelter to provide basic veterinary care for homeless men’s pets.

“It’s a public health and safety issue. We don’t want rabid or unhealthy animals in the community. We want animals to be healthy,” said Patsy Murphy, who has been executive director of the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland since March.

“The animals are their family,” she said. “This is one small piece of helping folks to be able to maintain their companion animals.”

The relationship between the refuge league and the shelter developed last month when three homeless men and their dogs were staying at the shelter and city staff lacked the expertise or resources to meet the animals’ needs, said Sandy Brown, a human services counselor at the Oxford Street shelter.

The dogs have been allowed to stay at the shelter with their owners as long as they have the required rabies vaccination and if the owner has a note from a counselor designating the dog as a therapy dog, Brown said.

For some homeless men, their needs and those of their pets are intertwined.

“The guys are either on a fixed income or they don’t have any incomes at all,” Brown said. “Their dogs are their lifeline. They will spend their money first to feed their dogs before themselves.”

In return, the dogs are completely devoted. Outreach workers say the dogs follow closely and are completely focused on their owner, but at the same time are willing to be patted by all the people they encounter.

The refuge league — which accommodates homeless animals like the shelter cares for people — provided food, water dishes and dog beds to the shelter and offered to give the dogs checkups and basic veterinary care.

“I think it’s great. They paid for his rabies shot so he could stay here” at the shelter, said Rick Osborne, referring to his 9-month-old dog Maverick. Osborne said he hadn’t had a dog in about 10 years and then got Maverick — a black lab-pit bull mix with a little bit of beagle — when the wiry pup was a month old.

Osborne said he owns a home in Dixfield but there is no work there and he is in Portland earning money to cover property taxes and other expenses. He has a friend watch the dog while he works during the day because his dog can’t join him at work.

In another case, a young homeless man required medical attention himself but couldn’t go to the hospital with his dog and was afraid if he gave it up, he might not get it back.

“These guys, a lot of them have nobody left in their life that they’re able to go to, so their dog becomes the most important thing they have in the world,” Brown said. “It becomes very difficult for them to separate.”

The man was given a tour of the shelter so he could be comfortable with his pet’s accommodations. While he received his treatment, the dog was screened for heart worm, Lyme disease and other conditions and given shots and medicine.

Taking care of the animal is far preferable to having him become a stray and get into trash or be hit by a car, Murphy said.

In the past year, a number of homeless men with dogs have stayed at the shelter, along with dogs ranging in size from pugs to huskies.

Murphy said the Animal Refuge League has provided checkups to three animals so far under the program. A standard checkup can cost more than $100.

Most of the dogs are considered therapy dogs, a designation that requires a note from a mental health professional. As such, the owners can’t be denied access, services or accommodations because of their dogs, Brown said.

The dogs are invariably good-tempered and welcome at the shelter, she said.

“The dogs come right in and they sleep on their mat with them or close to them. They just become one of our guests for the evening,” Brown said. “They all get along great and even the other guys staying at the shelter who don’t have animals love the dogs. It’s helpful for the whole building.”

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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