People sit on 6th Street in Los Angeles' Skid Row area. (Grant Hindsley / Associated…)
For years Sheba lived on the streets with Georgina. "When it was cold, she kept me warm," Georgina recalled recently, "and if I got attacked, she protected me."
Sheba was a patient, loving German shepherd mix whose excess belly fat and low-hanging nipples gave testimony to her maternal nature. Everyone on skid row — kids, cops, prostitutes, pimps — loved her. But her best friends were the homeless street addicts who live outside our Catholic Worker soup kitchen, particularly Georgina.
Georgina ended up on skid row after fleeing an abusive husband. At first she lived with her handicapped, addicted mother in the St. Agnes Hotel, but she soon became addicted to crack cocaine herself and began living on the streets.
I can't say that it was Georgina's relationship with Sheba that enabled her to enter and successfully complete a recovery program. But I can say without doubt that the maternal presence of this loving creature was one of the few positive attachment relationships in her life for a time, and that Sheba also touched the shattered lives of many addicts and petty drug dealers on Gladys Street. It's possible that, for Georgina, the steady, unconditional love she got from Sheba provided just enough stability to make recovery seem possible.
Something I read recently made me think about all this. In his book "In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Close Encounters with Addiction," Canadian physician Gabor Maté looks at the issue of drug addiction through the lens of early childhood brain development. Hard-core substance abuse in later life, he concludes, can often be traced to early childhood trauma: abandonment, nutritional deprivation, battery, rape.
"The majority of chronically hard-core substance dependent adults lived as infants and children under conditions of severe adversity that left an indelible stamp on their development," Maté writes. "Their predispositions to addiction were programmed; their brains never had a chance"
He notes that humans are hard-wired to need strong connections with other humans, and that children need "an attachment connection with at least one reliably available, protective, psychologically present, and reasonably non-stressed adult."
A dog is no substitute, certainly, for a loving, stable family or for strong human bonds. But most of the addicts on skid row haven't known nurturing families for years, if they ever did. Sheba stepped into a void in Georgina's life, and she made a difference.
On June 26, Sheba was hit by a car and killed. Her memorial service was held in the dining garden of our soup kitchen, but Georgina was not among the more than 30 mourners who attended. Her therapist, fearful of a possible relapse, advised her not to attend. The gathering was full of fond memories of Sheba, but toward the end there was one awkward moment. Was it theologically correct, we wondered, to pray for a dog? But then someone in the crowd called out, "Let us pray for the loving gift that Sheba was to our community."
We did. And the people of skid row said, "Amen."
Jeff Dietrich is a member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker. His most recent book is "Broken and Shared: Food, Dignity, and the Poor on Los Angeles' Skid Row."