Stu Bykofsky: Hopefully, Marshmallow will start a conversation

Marshmallow helped get housing help for her owner.
Marshmallow helped get housing help for her owner.
Posted: November 16, 2012

SINCE JULY 29, Phyllis Sanders and Marshmallow have been living in Washington Square.

Not in one of the luxury high-rises surrounding the historic Center City jewel, but in the square itself, homeless. They were unnoticed by most, but not all.

Among the first of the neighbors to notice was Sheila Paulos, who was attracted to the bag lady because of Marshmallow, a shih-tzu. Paulos was walking her 6-year-old white bichon named Shmata.

One conversation led to the next, and before long Paulos began seeing Sanders not as a homeless person, but as a person.

The 71-year-old Sanders is not indigent. She receives enough from Social Security and a pension to live on, yet somehow wound up in the park, like a discarded candy wrapper.

She had a career as a medical technologist at Jefferson and Pennsylvania hospitals, but there's more I don't know, because I interviewed her in the lobby of the Midtown Holiday Inn Express, 13th and Walnut streets, on a "bad day," says Paulos.

On "bad days," Sanders can be argumentative and paranoid, living in a shadowy landscape between hope and fear. Sanders has more good days than bad days, Paulos says, and is clearly intelligent.

Back in August, Paulos, who teaches intellectual heritage at Temple, started making calls to social-service agencies, public and private, on behalf of the old lady. They all turned her away because they didn't have access to pet-friendly housing, and Sanders will never surrender her dog.

Paulos was failing in her mission to get Sanders into housing and winter was putting on its boots, getting ready to visit Philadelphia. Even before freeze arrived, in came flood in the form of Sandy, which led Mayor Nutter to urge people who needed it to get to shelters. Phyllis went to the Red Cross shelter at West Philly High, where she was admitted with Marshmallow, thanks to the city's rule that shelters must accept pets.

That policy followed the debacle of Hurricane Katrina, during which many animal guardians refused to abandon their pets in the path of a hurricane. That created a debate that led to a realization that most Americans regard their pets as family members. Doors to shelters soon swung open almost everywhere, eliminating a heartbreaking choice for families with pets.

While Sanders was in the shelter, she fell ill but wouldn't allow anyone to take her to the hospital until Marshmallow's safety was guaranteed.

That's when Red Paw - an emergency responder like Red Cross, but for animals - arrived and promised to keep Marshmallow safe in a foster home and return him to Sanders. Only then did Sanders agree to go to the hospital, where she remained for a few days. When released, she tried to find a pet-friendly place to live, but went back to camping in Washington Square.

Last Sunday, her path crossed Mayor Nutter's, who was leading Veterans Day ceremonies in Washington Square. Sanders was sitting on a bench when Paulos and other neighbors approached the mayor, pointed to Sanders, and asked for help. Nutter spoke with Sanders and later called Paulos to let her know a city outreach team had been dispatched.

When I asked Nutter why he had stopped to talk with Sanders, he replied, "I'm just not going to walk by someone who is struggling and in pain."

Next thing you know, Sister Mary Scullion's Project HOME got Sanders off the street and into the hotel where I met her. After one night in the Holiday Inn, Project HOME placed her in temporary housing and is helping her find a permanent home. (If you know of a pet-friendly place, contact me.)

Paulos is fostering Marshmallow until Sanders finds a place where they both can live.

The mayor, a nun, everyday Philadelphians and others came together to rescue an old lady and her little dog.

That's happening for Sanders, but other pet owners are in the same squeeze. As a matter of public policy, Nutter told me, "I want to encourage pets. There are lots of benefits, especially for seniors," who sometimes cling to life and hope by the leash that connects them to their precious pets.

Now would be a good time to start that policy conversation.

Email: stubyko@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5977

" @StuBykofsky

Columns: philly.com/Byko

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