David Baldazo spent 30 years in prison before moving into a supportive housing complex at Fifth and San Pedro, in the heart of Skid Row. He knew that to keep his housing, he couldn't continue living as he used to. But his years in prison left him disdainful of authority figures.
"I can't do programs, I can't do none of that stuff," Baldazo says. "AA, God, none of that shit worked for me. This guy is what helped me."
He's referring to Baby, a cocker spaniel–chihuahua mix he rescued from an animal shelter nearly two years ago. Baby, whose Zenlike calm brings to mind an aloof house cat, has changed Baldazo in ways he didn't expect.
"You fall in love with these guys," he says. "As far as me partying, I started slowing down. Maybe once a month I might get loaded. He just makes me a happy man."
Baldazo struggles with depression. Some days, it's a battle simply to get out of bed. Baby, who's licensed as a service dog, helps him get up and start his day.
"He rescued me more than I rescued him," Baldazo says.
Baby wears Converse All-Stars. They aren't just a fashion statement. They're for protection. Outside the supportive housing complex where Baldazo lives, there's a thriving crystal meth trade.
"Crumbs and everything fall on the ground," Baldazo says. "I don't want him licking his paws, getting high."
Service dogs are becoming a common sight on Skid Row, among both the homeless and those living at the fringes of homelessness, like Baldazo. Many of these people suffer from mental illness or addiction. Many of them are isolated and have trouble forming or maintaining a relationship. Owning a dog is a relatively easy way to form such a relationship.
"There's a lot of misinformation about support animals," says Rebecca Watson, supervising attorney for the Inner City Law Center, a Skid Row nonprofit that provides legal services. "I have so many clients with mental health illnesses. They're often very isolated. I've heard so many times, 'I would not be alive if it weren't for my pet. That's the only thing that's giving me meaning now.'"
Every Wednesday, the Inner City Law Center opens its doors to pets and pet owners in the area who are struggling to make ends meet. There, pet owners can receive a wide range of services, including free pet food, flea and tick medication, dog harnesses and even doggie jackets.
"For a lot of these people and a lot of these animals, they’re all they have," says Lisa Dulyea, a spokeswoman for the Inner City Law Center. "They depend on each other for companionship, protection and just getting by on a day-to-day basis. It’s incredible to see."
Sean Sanders shows up at the pet resource center every Wednesday. This week, he was at the center with his ginger cat, Little Man, and two of his dogs, Max and Ugly. ("All Chihuahuas are ugly," Sanders explains.)
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When he turns the corner, his pets get so excited they leap out of the basket of his bicycle and race toward the red brick building. "They get spoiled here," Sanders says.
Sanders lives in his truck with, as he says, "five dogs, two cats and no people." Why so many? "Well, they all needed a home, and I didn't say no."
He says there's a perk to living with animals rather than humans.
"You know that everything you receive from dogs is real," Sanders says. "I haven't heard a lie all year."