What the Tragic Death of a Homeless Man’s Service Animal Says About Criminalization

criminalization of homeless veteran and death of his service animal

Trigger Warning: The following article describes graphic violence against animals and humans. 

Joining the military is a difficult decision that can lead to a lifetime of trauma, particularly in a country that doesn’t treat its former soldiers well. Iraq War veteran Joshua Graham Rohrer learned this lesson the hard way when he returned home to America from a trauma-inducing overseas tour and was immediately thrust into homelessness.

Rohrer, who was deployed to Kuwait and Iraq and served six years in the military, returned in 2008. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a mental state undoubtedly brought on as an aftereffect of serving his country.

The Department of Veteran Affairs prescribed a dog for this man who needed housing to ease his broken mental state. The dog quickly became a companion, standing silently by Rohrer’s side in times of distress.

He lovingly referred to the canine as Sunshine. Whether Rohrer was standing at an intersection or sleeping outside in the rain, the 2-year-old Belgian Malinois brought him so much comfort that he can be seen almost glowing in a photograph depicting the two.

Tragically, there were dark days ahead for Sunshine due to a violent altercation with law enforcement officials. The debacle between this veteran and the police, ultimately ending Sunshine’s life, speaks volumes about what’s wrong with our current system of overly criminalizing homelessness.

The Call that Sparked the Death of a Service Animal

On Wednesday, October 13th, the Gaston County Police Department responded to a call from a “concerned” citizen who alleged that Rohrer and another unidentified woman were using Sunshine to panhandle money from drivers at a bustling intersection in North Carolina.

“Is it legal for these adults to be standing in the intersection with a dog asking for money?” the caller quipped.

The dispatcher then asked if she was alluding to panhandling or if the dog was in danger.

The caller then claimed, “They’re using this dog to make people feel sorry for them to give them money.”

Shockingly, the caller claimed to have a genuine concern for the service animal, even going so far as to suggest the dog could get hit by a car. Little did she realize that her call alone would set off a chain of events leading to that dog’s untimely death.

Police Arrived to Question Rohrer, an Altercation that Grew Increasingly Worse at Every Turn

When police arrived on the scene, they surrounded the homeless veteran, demanding he provide correct state identification and adding that his failure to do so would result in his arrest.

When Rohrer didn’t provide the correct ID in what police felt was an adequate amount of time, they slammed him on the hood of the car and forcefully arrested him. Bodycam footage shows that this action made the service dog visibly distressed. The dog paced the pavement near the arresting officers, and they responded by tasing the loving canine who was “just doing her job,” in the words of her owner.

Several eyewitnesses claimed the turn of events was unnecessarily violent. According to bystander accounts, Rohrer was not resisting arrest, and his service dog had never bitten anyone during this altercation or at any previous time.

When the homeless veteran asked not to be separated from his service animal, police taunted him and proceeded with the arrest. Rohrer was escorted to prison on charges of solicitation and resisting arrest. Sunshine, the service dog who was often bedazzled in a military uniform to match her owner’s, was tragically hit by a car and killed after being separated from her loving owner.

In an exclusive discussion with Invisible People, Will Knight, who serves as the decriminalization director for the National Homelessness Law Center, stated this indicates several broader problems in the system.

“The vast majority of nonviolent misdemeanors are handled by summons,” he explained. “There is an obligation of proportionality in the Fourth Amendment when it comes to use of force. This seems like an absolute outlier compared to how housed people like you and I would be treated. 

This would not have been a confrontation. The police officers would have used words. This is a solid indication of how law enforcement views homeless people as less than human.”

“With respect to the service animal, it highlights the carelessness of law enforcement,” he continued. “This is indicative of a bigger problem police have dealing with animals. Whether those animals are pets or service animals, law enforcement officials have almost no training on how to handle those situations. This often results in the animal being killed.”

“This event was both unnecessary and tragic,” Knight concluded.

His sentiments have been echoed by the public.

Key Takeaways: Criminalizing Homelessness Causes Unnecessary Harm and Sometimes Death

This story is symbolic of the many horrors of criminalizing homelessness. The first error took place when police were called to deal with a homeless military veteran who was grappling with PTSD.

Law enforcement officials are trained to deal with criminals, not homeless people with mental health issues. The only reason they were contacted is because the United States has made becoming homeless a crime. Had social workers been called instead of law enforcement, they would have been trained to deal with mental health issues and service animals, and perhaps Sunshine would have survived the incident. 

Another key issue was the unjust repercussions for a lack of photo identification. It is common for homeless people not to have a photo ID. Often, vital paperwork is confiscated from them during homeless encampment sweeps, which, ironically, are another form of homeless criminalization.

Members of the unsheltered homeless community, of which veterans are overrepresented, are also more likely to be robbed for their licenses, which are hot commodities for thieves to sell to criminals. Given these extended circumstances, the fact that not producing proper identification was reason enough to make an arrest is erroneous.

Lastly, the caller believed she was saving the dog. This is a tragic example of how social stigmas have real-world consequences. The woman who initially made the report falsely perceived Rohrer as a shifty individual with bad intentions for his service animal. This could not have been further from the truth. This judgment was based solely on the fact that he was homeless and had a dog with him at the intersection.

Talk to Your Representatives about Removing Laws that Criminalize Homelessness

This entire ordeal could have been avoided if anti-homeless legislation did not exist. Only in the United States of America could a man go to war for his country and return home to be taunted, arrested, and separated from his only companion, his hands cuffed due to a lack of paperwork, his service dog sentenced to an agonizing end.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, a GoFundMe was started for Rohrer, who raised enough money to purchase a new service animal. His charges were dropped due to public outrage.

Let’s not forget that this all began with a phone call. It can end with a phone call from you. Please call your legislators and ask them to remove all anti-homeless legislation and replace it with laws that make housing a human right.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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