Sunday Story: Uggy’s Army – richmondmagazine.com
A lost dog recently rallied a compassionate army of strangers to reunite the pup, Uggy, with his owner, homeless veteran Robert “Bobby” Hodges. Their ranks have swelled, as more people enlist in the effort to help the pair find a home in Chesterfield County and connect to needed services.
Hodges, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, was terrified when Uggy — his white-and-brindle pit bull that he says “has the polar bear-tiger look” — got loose in early May from the van that shelters them. Hodges posted a plea for help on the Lost and Found Pets in Chesterfield & RVA Facebook page, hoping that one of the group’s 10,000-plus members could help find Uggy.
“I can’t be without him,” Hodges says, adding that he and Uggy have a bond “a lot of people don’t understand.”
Elisabeth “Lee” Parker, an administrator for the Facebook page, spent several hours looking for Uggy, one day searching until 3 in the morning. Uggy eventually turned up at a local animal shelter, where he had been dropped off safe. When Hodges came to claim his best friend, someone had anonymously paid the fee required to release the pup.
When details about Hodges’ veteran status and struggles with homelessness spread through social media, numerous acts of kindness followed, many executed by Parker.
“I have two pit bulls, and I’m an Army brat, so right away I was in,” she says, “but I never expected, and I know he didn’t expect, so much love from everyone. So many people jumped in offering to help.”
Parker started a GoFundMe campaign that has raised more than $2,600 as of early June toward a home for Hodges and Uggy. She has been the thread that has connected Hodges with a patchwork of social services and animal welfare agencies. Virginia Supportive Housing helped him register Uggy as an emotional support animal, which helps protect Hodges under the federal Fair Housing Act from housing discrimination due to Uggy’s breed. Hodges also recently received a federal voucher that subsidizes housing for homeless veterans. He says that finding an apartment that allows pit bulls has largely prevented him from moving out of his van.
“I’d rather be out here with him than not homeless without [Uggy],” Hodges says. “This is all for him.”
Like many during the pandemic, he is struggling to find affordable housing. Eviction moratoriums that have saved renters from homelessness have also resulted in fewer available units, driving up costs. Hodges says he has been homeless for more than a year, since shortly after his contracting business went under when COVID-19 shutdowns hurt many entrepreneurs.
Historically, veterans are 50% more likely to experience homelessness than other Americans due to poverty and lack of support networks following discharge, affordable housing advocates say. And Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) annual reports indicate that the number of homeless veterans had been increasing steadily prior to job losses during the pandemic.
HUD and the Department of Veterans Affairs have been criticized for being slow to issue veteran housing vouchers, mostly due to a long process for verifying eligibility. In April, the departments announced they would digitize the system and open the program to veterans with less than honorable discharges. Hodges was honorably discharged following his service as a generator technician in the Army and Army Reserve from 1999-2006. He was also part of Hurricane Katrina response efforts.
Tim Capps, a veteran affiliated with the Wounded Warrior Project who is part of the effort to get Hodges stable housing, says many veterans have difficulty accessing help. “I think the problem with the VA is that it’s just so huge,” Capps says. “It’s a big monster, and you can’t pin down the problem. And presidents have tried before Biden to do that.”
Capps adds that more case managers, assigned lighter caseloads, could give veterans more personalized attention.
Kirstin Krueger owns the Chester pet supply consignment shop A Pet’s Tale and hosted a two-day supply drive that provided Hodges with food, pet supplies, gift cards and monetary donations. She also donated a portion of store profits from the weekend to Hodges.
Krueger, who has been homeless in the past and is engaged to a Marine with a disability, says her experiences compelled her to help Hodges. “I feel where he’s been, and I understand,” she says.
Others have offered services, such as a haircut for Hodges, or said they would watch Uggy while Hodges worked at a Chesterfield supermarket where his van is parked. Hopewell Animal Hospital neutered and vaccinated Uggy for free, and a Sanctuary Rescue volunteer transported Uggy to the clinic. The dog will also receive free emotional support training from Healing4Heroes, based in Georgia.
Hodges says he struggled to access services before so many people came together on his behalf. “I’m glad I found my family and my army to help,” he says.
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