When she was homeless and her possessions filled a shopping cart, Yvonne Michelle Caldwell had a regular routine. She would put her three stray mutts -- Bebe, Mimi and Peewee -- in a baby stroller and take them for a stroll past the 77th Street Division of the LAPD.
Caldwell's former life -- a steady job, a brand-new car and money saved for her first home -- was gone.
At first, it was the dogs that caught the attention of Officer Tami Baumann, who often saw Caldwell as she went to and from the station. The dogs would bring them together and, in time, forge an unusual friendship that eventually would get Caldwell off the streets.
Baumann, a nine-year Los Angeles Police Department veteran, was known among colleagues for taking in stray dogs found on patrol and cajoling friends and colleagues to take them home. "It's hard for me not to help, if I can find it a home," she says.
Baumann says she's always been that way. As a girl growing up in Southern California, she once visited a pet store after Easter and was horrified when a clerk said the unsold bunnies might be sent to a lab. "I'll take all of them," she told him.
She laughs when she recalls the look on her mother's face when she saw 13 rabbits hopping around their yard. But Baumann found homes for all 13.
So when Baumann would walk up to Caldwell and a group of homeless people -- "She would say hello and tell us to pour our beers out," Caldwell says -- it often was to check up on the dogs.
Baumann says she was impressed by Caldwell. "She took such good care of her dogs, better care of her dogs than herself," the officer says.
Caldwell was impressed too, surprised that Baumann liked dogs so much. She would fawn over them and often brought kibble.
When Bebe had nine puppies, Baumann found homes for four. When Caldwell found seven more puppies in the trash, Baumann kept one and found homes for the rest.
As they worked to find homes for the dogs, a friendship developed. But, Baumann says, "She really didn't trust me until she found out I was from Texas." In fact, both women were born in San Antonio.
About a year ago, Caldwell opened up to the officer. "You know, I haven't always been homeless," she told Baumann. That's when Baumann learned her story.
Caldwell, 48, has struggled with alcohol for 20 years. She started drinking after her boyfriend of nine years left her and their two daughters, then 5 and 7. After about 10 years, she entered a rehab program, stopped drinking and tried to build a new life, working as a security guard, buying a car, even preparing to buy a house.
Her life seemed to be going well until about three years ago, when another boyfriend started hitting her. Caldwell started drinking again. She lost her job and left her boyfriend. By spring 2001, the car she had been so proud of -- a white SUV -- had become her only shelter.
She eventually lost the car too. It was stolen and then impounded, and Caldwell couldn't afford the few hundred dollars to get it out. "The next thing I knew," she says, "I was pushing a buggy with dogs."
After learning Caldwell's story -- and impressed by Caldwell's desire to get off the streets -- Baumann made an offer: "At some point, we said, 'You want help? We'll help you.' "
When Caldwell was ready, Baumann took the unusual step of asking her superiors to make Caldwell an official part of her job. The department has a program known as SARA -- Scanning, Analysis, Response, Assessment -- that mainly tackles quality-of-life problems in communities, such as graffiti and illegal dumping.
Baumann asked if Caldwell's rehabilitation could be considered a SARA project and if she could devote time to her while on patrol. The department agreed.
Caldwell "is a part of the community," says Senior Lead Officer Maria Marquez, who has been working with Baumann to help Caldwell. "Turning her life around is helping the community and her.... There's more to this job than answering radio calls and putting people in jail."
Baumann found a rehabilitation program for Caldwell. She also found a family to take her remaining dog and paid them $50 a month to care for him. A month after entering the program, Caldwell was found to have skin cancer. After her surgery, Baumann took Caldwell to her home for several days to recover.
Caldwell completed her rehabilitation program in January. She is living in transitional housing and will soon be moving into her own apartment. She has started taking computer and math classes at Los Angeles Southwest College.
Baumann and Marquez are helping her search for work.
With Caldwell and Baumann there are no hints of their former relationship as cop and homeless woman. While they sit down with Marquez to talk about their lives, they all come across as old girlfriends. And they look forward to the future.
"Eventually she'll get a car and her own place and we can just call her up and say we're having a barbecue," Baumann says.
And to think it started with the dogs.
"I was the neighborhood dog lady," Caldwell says.
Baumann quickly adds, "And I'm the station dog lady."
Marquez, who often kids Baumann about her dog rescues, laughs. And Caldwell and Baumann laugh along with her.