By Grace Maselli
There’s Rocco and his brother. And Chevy, Chance, and Blue. And don’t forget Goose. Goose is a dog. A dog who looks like an Irish Setter and has nine brothers and sisters. There’s Nyx the cat too, named for the Greek Goddess of Darkness—a nine lives cat who survives despite the strong odds of being eaten while living in an encampment in the woods.
What do these dignified, intelligent, and unconditional lovers of people have in common? They’ve all been rehomed by Ellen Paul, Founder and Executive Director of the Nature Coast Community Services Foundation, a 501(c) 3 nonprofit; NCCSF’s aim it is to do what it takes to get homeless people living in the subtropical backwoods out from the elements and snakes and into homes and jobs. More formally, NCCSF and its small coterie of devoted volunteers’ mission is to “identify and help fund social needs existing in Florida’s Nature Coast region that are not adequately addressed by existing governmental or private organizations.”
“To date,” the NCCSF’s website makes an important point of noting, “we are getting one person a month on average out of the woods, into a paying job, and into permanent housing. But for every person whom we help escape homelessness, another one or two [more] find us.” Ellen puts the approximate number of lives changed at 43 since NCCSF’s formalized founding in October 2018, two years after Ellen began her deeply spiritual—strategic, logistical—and compassionate work.
TBT learned more about Ellen and NCCSF at the recent Third Tuesday of the month meeting on July 21 with 30 people in attendance by Zoom and a focus on the topic of building community.
For Ellen, the community of homeless people she and her volunteers help all started with the Rocco’s and Chance’s of the world—homeless people’s dogs and Ellen’s passion for them: This mother of renewal and invention understood canine love from the get-go and what it continues to mean for homeless people on a deep, archetypal level. “The general public will often say, ‘Why do these people have pets? They can’t even take care of themselves. I get a lot of blow back,” Ellen says. “People just don’t understand that these animals are the only source of companionship, love, and protection many homeless people have. Whether an animal is trained or not, whether it’s a dog or a cat, it doesn’t matter. Everyone needs to be loved.”
Living in a Station Wagon with a Five-Year-Old
Things arguably got underway in Ellen’s world with a big woman we’ll call “Chauncey.” Chauncey is a middle-aged female described as 6 ft. tall, about 300 lbs., and living in a station wagon with her five-year-old grandson. “Everything they owned was in their car,” says Ellen of the family, including a 60 lb. dog—people and their beloved pet who were displaced when Chauncey lost her job because of illness. “When this happened, everything unraveled,” Ellen says. Ellen first met Chauncey in a homeless encampment in Hernando County’s Masaryktown woods (until the police threw the dispossessed off the site). “Nearly every person in those woods had a pet; some people had three or four,” Ellen says. She would know. Her job continues to be handing out clothing and food, “and talking with people, to understand where their heads are, to see what we can do to help them.”
One day after such a visit to the woods Ellen “got a strong sense” that Chauncey wanted to talk. “I asked her if there was anything she needed and what she asked for was dog food.” Chauncey’s dog hadn’t eaten in several days when Ellen encountered the family because Chauncey couldn’t afford the cost of the food, or gas for that matter; the whole family including the dog was hungry. “That morning we had met Chauncey she managed to scrape together enough money to get to the Hernando County pound to surrender her dog. But she couldn’t do it. She was crying all the way back to Masaryktown. She was crying and praying for a sign,” Ellen says. “And then I showed up with a 50 lb. bag of dog food. It was the first time I was called an angel. It’s way above my pay grade to be called that! But I understand the gratitude that comes with the remark.”
Four-Legged House Guests
“The dogs are deeply important to these people,” says Ellen, who has personally taken care of homeless people’s dogs in her house so people would agree to get surgical procedures done. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t go to clinics or hospitals,” she says of the deep attachments to animals. Ellen’s most recent canine house guest was Rocco, a puppy pit bull.
“Lyla” was about 62 years old and homeless in the Masaryktown woods when Ellen met her. Lyla was in love with her all-black cat, Nyx. So much so she wanted a better life for her. “Lyla said, ‘This is a special kitty. She follows me in the woods like a dog. She talks to me all the time; we talk together. I want her to have a long life and lots of friends.’ And then Lyla handed me the cat,” Ellen says.
Among the services Ellen and her volunteers provide through NCCSF is low-cost spaying and neutering through the PetLuv Spay & Neuter Clinic in Brooksville. “I’ve had dozens done,” she says. The day Ellen was taking Nyx to be spayed the vet told her the cat was pregnant. “Neutering would have killed the kittens in utero, and I couldn’t do that.” So instead Ellen kept two of Nyx’s babies and found reliable, loving, indoor homes for the other two kittens.
A third recipient of NCCSF’s efforts is a woman, “Charlene,” who the nonprofit had helped for a number of years. When Charlene ended up in jail, she asked her friends in the Masaryktown woods to take care of her three dogs. One of them, Chevy, was left without food or water and to fend unsuccessfully for himself. “Chevy looked like he’d just gotten out of Auschwitz,” as Ellen describes it. But even in his emaciated condition the fawn-colored Chevy was a big boy at 60 lbs. and anticipated to grow to 150 lbs., according to a veterinarian’s estimate. Despite her heartbreak over losing him, Charlene went to Ellen and said, “I need your help to get Chevy out of here.”
The Universe Is Listening
“So I put the word out to the universe and said, ‘I need a home for this dog,’” Ellen explains. Within a couple of hours the universe got back to her. Ellen got a phone call from another homeless woman, “Pam,” who told Ellen, “I need a large dog. I need him to be a service dog. I have seizures.” And as soon as Pam got word about Chevy, she immediately wanted him.
Most people living in the woods have jobs, Ellen says based on her years of experience. But these are routinely low-paying, part-time jobs that don’t generate enough money for even a modest rent and living expenses. “Corporations are not hiring for full-time work, so they don’t have to pay benefits,” in many cases, Ellen says. This reality leaves little choice than to live in the woods and participate in the gig economy—short-term contract work or day labor, let’s say, compared to permanent jobs—so people can survive.
And as the universe would also have it, Pam, who was continuously moving on foot or bicycle between Weeki Wachee and Brooksville, is a professional dog trainer. Within seconds of Charlene and Ellen introducing Chevy to his new owner, “Chevy focused like a laser beam on Pam,” Ellen remembers. “And within another five minutes Pam had him sitting on command”—the bent elbow, fist up, configuration in the dog training world. That first night together Pam had two seizures, and Chevy knew instinctively what to do without any training: He stretched out behind Pam to soften her fall and created as much cushioning as possible. “Two days later Pam had Chevy walking through Walmart—this is a dog who had never been on a leash before.”
Now Pam and Chevy are inseparable. In Pam’s meanderings across the nine miles between Weeki Wachee and Brooksville, Chevy is in heaven and in lockstep, jogging alongside the love of his life as she pumps the pedals of her bike through the subtropics. They stop at the halfway point where a store owner gives Chevy water and Pam also gets refreshed. “Chevy loves Pam and he loves the exercise,” says Ellen, who also helped Chevy go legit with the right service dog paperwork to confirm he’s the real deal. “We got Chevy rated as a service dog with the paper to prove it. So if Pam goes into the hospital, or jail, or Walmart, Chevy goes with her,” Ellen says. Chevy is an extension of Pam.
“The whole thing is a miracle,” says the Founder of NCCSF. Besides seizures, Pam grapples with depression too. “Chevy comes over and licks the tears off her face and leans into her for comfort,” Ellen says with a kind of childlike wonder. As of this writing, Ellen and NCCSF are gifting Pam and Chevy a four-man (one-dog) tent to give the wanderers a much-needed, deeply appreciated home base in the woods—a precious space to call their own. “There are so many incredible stories like this,” says Ellen. “They’re pure magic.”
In honor of this magic, donations of pet food, clothes, and towels for wet dogs in the woods and, of course, cash, are deeply and thankfully accepted by NCCSF at the organization’s website.