For a long time, and as recently as two years ago, 74-year-old Josie Guerrero was living a life that was at least somewhat stable. She had a roof over her head and was able to pay the rent, supplementing her meager Social Security checks with gig jobs at the Monterey Jazz Festival and Pebble Beach, where she worked security for special events. She was poor – she is poor – and when you’re poor, there’s no wiggle room, no margin for error.
She had lived in an apartment near the Naval Postgraduate School for 14 years when, in 2018, her landlord told her she would have to move out so he could renovate the place. He said she could come back, but the new rent would be $2,100.
“I only get $1,300 from Social Security and I was barely making it,” she says.
A co-worker at Pebble Beach heard she was looking for a room and so she moved in to the mobile home that co-worker shared with his wife, 16 birds, four dogs and three cats. She was grateful for the place, but the conditions weren’t sanitary due to the number of pets.
Then came a hip injury, a hospital stay, a surgery and placement in a nursing home while she recuperated from the surgery. When she was released last May, she moved into her car, signed up with One Starfish, a program in which homeless women can find a safe place to overnight in their vehicles, and she’s been living in her car since.
She wasn’t alone in the car though. She has two little dogs, Peanut and Bella, for company and companionship. Or rather, she had two little dogs. Bella sat on her lap during a recent hour-long conversation at the office of her attorney, John Klopfenstein.
Peanut, meanwhile, is in the custody of the SPCA for Monterey County, and Guerrero may face prosecution over what seems to have been an accident.
Last October, Peanut signaled to her that he needed to get out of the car and have some outdoor time. When he jumped down, though, he landed in a way that he broke his foot. After some scrambling to find care for him – one agency said they would fix the dog’s leg, but that Guerrero would have to surrender him – she and Peanut landed at VCA All Pets Animal Hospital in Salinas, and there the veterinarian helped Guerrero secure a $1,500 grant to cover most of the cost of Peanut’s care.
All was well. On New Year’s Eve, they went back to VCA, the vet took off the cast and sent them off with the admonition to be careful. Then on Valentine’s Day, Peanut signaled he needed another potty break, but before she could lift him out of the car and place him on the ground, he jumped out, landed funny and broke a different leg.
This time, there was no grant. Because she couldn’t pay for treatment, the vet’s office summoned the SPCA, which told her they would have to take the dog.
“I didn’t abuse my dog. This was a freak accident,” Guerrero says. “I couldn’t find anyone to help me. I said, ‘Please don’t take him, can you please work with me on this.’”
Since Peanut’s surgery, which cost $1,300, the debt has been accumulating, at a cost of $25 each day. Guerrero, who has multiple sclerosis and problems regulating her blood sugar, took the last $20 she had in February and put it toward the bill.
But even if she could pay for the cost of his care – the SPCA had to amputate the dog’s broken leg, and he’s now in foster care – the SPCA sent Guerrero through a hearing process and found that the repeated injuries constitute severe neglect because Guerrero couldn’t immediately provide the dog with treatment.
They took possession of the dog. The next step is referring her to the District Attorney’s Office for possible prosecution.
Beth Brookhouser, spokesperson for the SPCA, says when cases reach this level, they are always referred to the District Attorney.
“Seizing a pet isn’t something officers take lightly and every time we do, it’s a heartbreaking case,” Brookhouser says. “But by law people can’t allow their pets to suffer. They have to render aid or give them up. And Peanut was suffering.”
Nobody wants to see Peanut suffer, least of all Guerrero. But it seems a most unjust thing to consider charging her with a crime when that crime is poverty.