STAMFORD – A hand went out, Frenchman to Frenchman.
David Michel heard the story of Fabrice Dube and quickly responded.
Besides their native country, Michel and Dube share a love of animals. And both have been homeless — Michel for one winter when he was in his early twenties, and Dube now.
Michel, a state representative from Stamford, learned from an outreach worker at Pacific House that Dube was living in a tent in a patch of woods near Interstate-95.
The outreach worker, Leroy Jordan, told Michel that Dube was refusing a spot in the shelter because he could not bring his cat, Cali.
Most homeless shelters do not allow pets.
“Fabrice said he has been living in the woods for two years, and his cat has slept in his arms for that time,” Michel said. “He will not leave her.”
Being on the street is isolating and dehumanizing, and people often do not have the support of family or friends, according to Fred Victor, a Canadian organization that serves the homeless. Kindness and affection comes from their animals.
A pet can provide courage to face each day – “the only other creature in the world who treats them with unconditional love and compassion,” reads the Fred Victor website.
He’s certainly seen that, said Jordan, who has worked with Stamford’s homeless for two decades. He was not surprised when Dube chose to stay in his tent with his 4-year-old orange tabby.
“He made that very, very, very clear,” Jordan said. “We have six or seven other people who won’t come into the shelter without their animals. Most of them live in cars.”
Kitty litter and a crate
Michel, a longtime supporter of measures that help the homeless, and co-chair of the state legislature’s Animal Advocacy Caucus, worked with Jordan to get permission for Cali to go to Pacific House with Dube.
They enlisted the help of Outreach to Pets in Need, a Stamford pet-adoption nonprofit; Friends of Felines, a volunteer organization that rescues cats; Just Cats Veterinary Hospital in Stamford; and the Stamford Animal Control Center. The groups covered the costs of shots and an examination for Cali, a special backpack for transporting her; food; kitty litter; and a crate, Michel said.
“As far as I know, it was the first homeless shelter in Stamford to allow a pet, and perhaps the first in the state,” Michel said.
Shelters in the United States are generally off-limits to pets, but with homelessness on the rise, managers are recognizing the role of pets, and seeking ways to keep them with their owners.
Pacific House had to prepare for Cali, Jordan said. Shelter managers have talked about allowing pets for some time, but struggled with the logistics, he said.
“So many issues come with it,” Jordan said. “There may be people in the shelter who don’t like cats, or they’re allergic. We have to make sure the owner will clean up after their pet and won’t let it jump on somebody or bite somebody. People share rooms, so we had to figure out which room to put them in. My supervisor decided to try it because this is a smaller animal that has a crate.”
So Dube and Cali went to Pacific House.
But only briefly.
The difficulty of being inside
“He stayed one night but then he said the cat does not like being inside. He didn’t want the cat to suffer, so he left,” Jordan said. “He might come and go; I don’t know. We’re trying to work with him. We understand the difficulty of the change, and being in the shelter with people who have all kinds of issues. It’s hard to come inside.”
It was too hard, said Dube, who spoke to CT Examiner using Michel’s phone. In the shelter, there was so much noise – voices, footsteps, doors closing, hand dryers buzzing in the bathroom, sounds on television.
“Cali was freaking out, shaking and trembling. I never saw her like that,” Dube said. “I got a migraine. I thought, ‘In my tent I feel safe. It’s better for us.’”
He missed the trees, Dube said.
“They are beautiful. I am calm there,” he said. “I have a propane heater that is miraculous. There is a creek where I wash my clothes. I have Baby Wipes. I grew up near woods in France. I can do a lot with a little bit.”
Michel said Dube is a talented hair stylist who was trained in Paris and came to the United States to work 17 years ago. He was employed at a hair studio in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., when a friend invited him to join his salon in Greenwich, Michel said.
“The job turned out to be a nightmare,” Michel said. “The friend was not good to him, and then told him to leave. Fabrice could not keep his clients because the friend made him sign a contract. He ended up living in a hotel until he ran out of money.”
And then he was on the street.
“What a lot of people don’t get is that, once you are homeless, your life is completely different. You have to stay awake at night to protect yourself,” said Michel, who lived on New York City streets for four months as a young man. “Without sleep, I couldn’t function in the day anymore. People can’t understand why homeless people can’t get out of it. But once you pass that threshold, the infrastructure of your life collapses, and getting back on your feet requires major help.”
Separating pets ‘not normal’
Dube said his situation is complicated by long COVID, which he contracted in Florida. It’s a mysterious condition in which a range of health problems linger long after the person recovers from COVID-19. Symptoms can affect any part of the body.
Dube said it has left him with vision and stomach problems, migraine headaches and chronic fatigue.
But Florida gave him a gift, Dube said.
One day when he was leaving the hair studio in Fort Lauderdale, he saw a kitten tied to a tree, abandoned.
“When I untied her, she came to me right away. I couldn’t believe it,” Dube said. “It was fate. She became part of my soul.”
Cali, and two years of living unsheltered in Stamford, have taught him things, he said.
“Since I am in the woods, I am better. I walk more and my health has improved,” Dube said. “Material things do not keep happiness. I have peace. Cali is really amazing and happy here. The veterinarian said she is in good health.”
Pets should be allowed in homeless shelters, Dube said.
“It’s not normal to not let people have their pets,” he said. “For us, it’s impossible to be without them.”
A homeless industry?
He has observations about what critics describe as the homeless industrial complex – a network of government agencies, nonprofits and contractors that create bureaucratic empires that essentially work to sustain themselves.
“They should provide more housing, but it seems like the homeless have become a business,” Dube said. “A light needs to be shined.”
Homelessness has been increasing since 2017, reaching record highs in 2022, the National Alliance to End Homelessness reports. Most of the increase is attributed to first-time homelessness, after aid from pandemic programs ended and rent costs surged to all-time highs, forcing people out of their homes.
The face of homelessness is changing, Jordan said.
“There are more people becoming homeless, but not because of substance abuse. It’s because of the loss of a job, and because the cost of housing is through the roof,” Jordan said.
Michel said he will contact the French consulate in New York to see whether Dube can return to his native country.
“In the same situation in France, he would have an apartment,” Michel said. “It’s a very different social system.”