Homeless no more: A man, a dog and the bond that set them free

By BRIAN BREHM The Winchester Star May 14, 2022

WINCHESTER — This is the story of Scott and Harley and how they saved each other’s lives.

Scott is a 51-year-old man whose physical and mental health problems contributed to him being homeless for six years.

Harley Girl is a 4-year-old dog who spent nearly two years on the streets before she was taken to the SPCA of Winchester, Frederick and Clarke Counties.

In February 2020, Harley was adopted by the staff of Winchester Rescue Mission and brought to live in the nonprofit’s homeless shelter at 435 N. Cameron St. That’s where she met Scott, who had been staying there since 2017.

On Thursday, Scott and Harley walked out of the mission together and moved into a new apartment in Winchester. They are homeless no more, thanks to a very special bond between a man and a dog.

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Scott, who did not want his last name used, was not comfortable being interviewed, so he asked the staff of Winchester Rescue Mission to speak on his behalf.

“He’s very, very private,” Development Coordinator Vicki Culbreath said on Friday.

Prior to coming to the Rescue Mission, Scott had been in a nursing home for several years due to severe diabetes. When he had to leave, he had nowhere to go, so he went to the homeless shelter.

Two-and-a-half years later, at the start of 2020, Winchester Rescue Mission Administrator Lauren Clouse pitched the idea of adopting a dog as a companion for the men who stay at the shelter. Executive Director Brandan Thomas wasn’t thrilled with the idea, but Clouse and Development Coordinator Vicki Culbreath started looking for a dog anyway.

On Feb. 3, 2020, Clouse and Culbreath met a 30-pound, mixed-breed dog at the SPCA at 111 Featherbed Lane. Her name was Girl and it was obvious she would be the perfect pet because, like the men at the Rescue Mission, she had been homeless herself.

For the first two years of her life, Girl had belonged to a homeless man who loved and cared for her. But in January 2020, cold weather forced the man to seek warmth from the Winchester Area Temporary Thermal Shelter program, a collaboration among local churches that provides free overnight accommodations during the winter. However, WATTS does not allow pets, so Girl’s owner reluctantly surrendered her to the SPCA.

“The story, the whole thing — we thought, ‘Gosh, we’ve got to do this,’” Thomas said about the mission’s decision to adopt Girl. “I’m grateful they convinced me to go for it.”

Girl moved into the Winchester Rescue Mission on Feb. 4, 2020, and was an instant hit with the residents.

“Everybody fell in love with her. Everybody,” Thomas said.

Girl’s new owners gave her a new name, Harley, which was picked to reflect Thomas’ love of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. To respect her former name, they called her Harley Girl.

Harley formed a special bond with every single resident and staff member at the Rescue Mission. Culbreath said when she would come to work each day, Harley hustled down the hallway to greet her and get a treat.

“When she comes into an office, we immediately cheer up,” Culbreath said. “She lightens the mood for everybody around here.”

Thomas said Harley’s sweet disposition became invaluable once the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. Residents suddenly found themselves confined at the homeless shelter for months, but at least they had Harley to lift their spirits. She made the rounds every day to give everyone a kiss and some quality one-on-one time.

“This was the right place at the right time,” Thomas said. “We could not imagine how much she would mean to us.”

Harley loved everyone at the Rescue Mission, but the person to whom she was closest was Scott. He fed her and took walks with her, and she would sleep in his bed at night.

“For whatever reason, they took to each other,” Thomas said. “Those two really are inseparable.”

Which was somewhat of a surprise. According to Culbreath, when the mission first got Harley, Scott looked at her and said, “That is the ugliest dog ever.”

“He told me last week that he never thought he would have this love for her,” Culbreath said. “But she’s a one-of-a-kind dog.”

Their bond was so strong that Harley became sad whenever she wasn’t with Scott. That was especially obvious in January when Scott had to be hospitalized at Winchester Medical Center due to a COVID-19 infection that caused him to lapse into a diabetic coma. His condition was so severe doctors didn’t expect him to survive, Thomas said.

Meanwhile, Harley kept vigil at the mission and waited for Scott to return. At night, she slept in his empty bed.

Miraculously, Scott emerged from his coma and was taken off the ventilator that had been keeping him alive. After a lengthy hospital stay, he was healthy enough to go back to the mission and reunite with Harley.

“She knew she had to be real gentle with him,” Culbreath said. “She would leave his room long enough to go outside for short walks, but otherwise stayed with him in bed while he was recovering.”

Culbreath said Harley also helped Scott overcome his clinical depression. A doctor even completed paperwork to designate Harley as his emotional support animal.

“Harley got him out of bed, got him doing things,” Culbreath said. “I’m not sure Scott would be in such a good place had Harley not been through this journey with him the past few years.”

Last month, Scott realized he was physically and mentally strong enough to leave the Rescue Mission after six years of residency. He secured an apartment in Winchester, then asked Culbreath, “Does Harley get to go with me?”

“We didn’t hesitate,” Culbreath said. “I’ve never seen him as happy than when he’s with Harley. And Harley loves him to death.”

On Thursday, Scott and Harley officially stopped being homeless when they moved into Scott’s new apartment.

“She has two dog beds in her new home, she took all of her possessions from here — which was a lot — and the neighbor has a dog,” Culbreath said. “She has a yard to play in with her new dog friend. She’s really happy.”

Scott’s apartment is within walking distance of the Rescue Mission, so Culbreath said she’ll be popping in for regular visits.

And Scott doesn’t have to worry about someone watching out for Harley if he winds up being hospitalized again.

“She can just come back and we’ll provide temporary shelter for her,” Culbreath said. “She’ll always be part of the mission, and we’ll always be her family.”

When Harley visits the mission, she’ll probably have a new canine friend to romp with.

“Lauren and I are already keeping our eyes open [for another dog],” Culbreath said with a smile. “We haven’t told Brandan yet.”

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