Who are the faces of the housing crash? Most would think of the countless home owners who struggled through financial hardship, trying desperately to hold onto their homes only to walk away in shame as foreclosure and eviction forced them from their one place of solace in the world. But there are others: cute, furry faces with sad eyes who never left but remained behind long after the home owners fled. They were abandoned and made to fend for themselves.
Pets being found alone and malnourished inside abandoned homes became a heartbreakingly familiar tale during the economic downturn. And in Arizona, which bore some of the worst of the foreclosure crisis, Brenda Breit began responding to emergency phone calls to pick up abandoned pets and find a place for them to go.
“REALTORS® and neighbors were the frontline heroes in finding these pets—cats and dogs—starving, crying, and exhausted in their empty homes with little or no chance of survival,” says Breit, an agent with The Empowered Team in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Recognizing the need for help, Breit and her daughter, Jodi Polanski, formed Lost Our Home Pet Foundation in 2008, a nonprofit dedicated to abandoned pets and the families who could no longer care for them.
“Phoenix was the hardest-hit in the United States, with foreclosures and almost no market at all. Property values dropped more than half,” says Ronda Emmrich, a real estate salesperson at Keller Williams Check Realty in Prescott, Ariz. Emmrich is board secretary for the Lost Our Home Pet Foundation. “Home owners ran out of options, seeking shelter in apartments, living with family and friends where pets were not allowed.”
At first, Breit and Polanski built a network of friends and family who could take temporary guardianship of abandoned pets. Breit eventually recruited more than 100 REALTORS® who opened their doors as foster parents to the animals or donated money to support the organization. As the only rescue in Maricopa County for cats and dogs abandoned as a result of the housing crisis,Lost Our Home soon had more pets than it did foster homes.
In 2012, Breit found a solution: She secured a lease for an 1,800-square-foot space in a shopping center. It served as a shelter housing 52 animals as they awaited adoption.
Through her efforts, more than 2,200 pets have been saved, and 250 have been reunited with their owners. Last year alone, she helped raise more than $265,000 to fund lifesaving medical procedures for animals and feed more than 10,000 pets through the local food bank.
Polanski, executive director of Lost Our Home Pet Foundation, says she is inspired by Breit’s dedication. “She is someone I can depend on, whatever the need may be,” she says. “She always finds a way to keep the foundation growing. Her phone is always on 24/7.”
Being a REALTOR® also helps Breit in her mission to keep pets in a loving home. She uses her community knowledge to help families find pet-friendly housing, and she even has persuaded landlords to accept pets so that animals can stay with their families.
For Breit, saving lives is the heart of her work — and something she tears up talking about. She remembers rescuing an older dog, a terrier mix, found with matted hair and unable to have a bowel movement. “I nurtured him for two weeks, cutting his hair and feeding him pumpkin baby food,” says Breit. “He didn’t make it. I held him until the end, as his tail wagged goodbye.”
This summer, the shelter faced a difficult challenge. The shopping center was sold, and the new owners asked Breit and Polanski to leave to make room for high-end restaurants and stores. The mother-daughter team had to find a new location with only a month’s notice.
“The thought of a cat or dog back on the streets and not having any shelter, food, or water is just too sad,” says Breit, who has two rescues of her own, an applehead Chihuahua named Buster and a Maltese poodle named Sugar.
Despite the challenge of finding the right property with the right zoning, they were able to find a new building that will serve their needs. In October, the 8,400-square-foot shelter will open, providing four rooms for cats, two big areas for dogs, and a space for low-cost boarding. The new facility will house up to 90 pets.
Breit’s foundation has become a sort of second home for many pets — and a godsend for struggling home owners who can’t bear to lose their pets. When Robin LaGrand began suffering from health problems and her husband lost his job, the couple moved in with their daughter. LaGrand made a desperate call to save her Yorkshire terrier, named Deegan.
“The apartment didn’t allow pets, but I remembered the news coverage about Lost Our Home Pet Foundation,” says LaGrand. “They took him for 90 days, provided him with rabies shots and vet care. I didn’t want to give him up. When I’m back on my feet, I’m going to support the shelter 100 percent.”
Another man, who lost his job and his apartment, was living out of his car with his cat. “Luckily, the family at Lost Our Home Pet Foundation was able to help us. The dedicated staff truly cares about the animals,” says the man, who asked to remain anonymous. “They welcomed my cat into the shelter and provided a place for her to stay while I look for work. The best part is that I’m allowed to visit her every day.”
For Breit, the goal is to ensure that pet owners in crisis always have somewhere to turn. “No matter what they’ve been through, I will give the light of hope to the pets left behind,” she says. “These are real lives we’re saving. They’ve got hearts and feelings like we do.”
Contact Brenda Breit at www.empoweredrealtyteam.com or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more about Lost Our Home Pet Foundation at www.lostourhome.org.