Keith Miller had his cell phone pressed to his ear as he stood outside of his restaurant, Big Mill’s Cheesesteaks, located on 13th Street.
A man approached the 52-year-old and asked to borrow the phone for an important message. The stranger, Danny Morris, sat in a wheelchair. He explained his struggle with homelessness in a soft voice, but he expressed his desire with conviction.
When Miller asked who he wanted to call, Morris gave him the number for a dog shelter and said only one thing was on his mind — his best friend, Max.
Miller posted a video of the homeless man, Danny Morris, reuniting with his American Staffordshire Terrier, Max, after nearly a year apart, according to Miller, in an Oct. 12 Facebook post. It accumulated more than 450 likes and 75 comments from community members asking for the story behind the duo and what they could do to help.
“I don’t have family,” Morris said. “I want to see my dog because he’s all I’ve got.”
Morris has had Max for three years. Despite spending time in the hospital without stable housing, Morris has always made Max his priority.
However, Morris wasn’t able to care for Max while he was hospitalized in UF Health Shands Hospital over the past year. After he was released, he searched for a moment to reunite with his dog again — and found one through Miller’s kindness.
Miller watched as Morris leaned down as far as he could to plant a kiss on Max’s light chestnut-colored forehead while the terrier’s tail danced by his owner’s feet on their Oct. 12 reunion.
“It’s important not to make assumptions when people say ‘I need your help,’” Miller said. “Maybe they really do, so just take a second, see if they really need help rather than just walk away and be rude.”
While Morris and Max’s story was just made public, their bond has remained strong despite the distance between them during the past three years due to the generosity of local business owner Jill Davis.
Davis, a 40-year-old UF alumna, is the owner of Animals Helping Humans and Humans Helping Animals, a local nonprofit that focuses on building relationships between foster children and foster animals. Davis also offers other programs, such as horseback riding and dog-training classes, for children of the state.
“This is my dream — helping animals and helping children,” she said. “It really can help these children. They've gone through absolute hell.”
Since the two met years ago, Morris has struggled with homelessness, and Max has stayed at Davis’ Gainesville-based doggy day care, Dogs Rule, Davis said. Nothing has dulled Morris’ love for Max — or Max’s love for his “Daddy.”
“This dog loves him so much,” Davis said. “It doesn’t matter if he’s homeless or if he’s rich.”
Homeless people with pets, like Morris, often put their animals before themselves, Davis said. In Morris’ case, there are homeless shelters where he could stay — without Max.
After seeing Keith’s video of Morris, people donated their extra money or tips from work to help the man and his furry friend find a home, Davis said.
“It was really nice to be able to get those just to take a weight off of our shoulders, even for dog food and to help pay the vet bill,” she said.
Davis’ dream is to find a studio apartment in Gainesville for Morris and Max. She said she would take full responsibility for the pair if Morris had trouble paying rent.
She also said she hopes to certify Max as an American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen for always displaying kind behavior and listening to commands. This could appeal to potential landlords when the family of two looks for a permanent place to stay.
At mention of Jill and Max, Morris’ face lights up, his eyes widen and he sits up straight in his wheelchair.
“Max, he’s my everything, my world — my entire world. My precious. My best friend,” the 60-year-old said, placing his hand near his heart. “People come and go. Dogs love more than people, and dogs will never leave you.”
Morris said he looks forward to watching Jill and Max turn the corner of University Avenue for visits. Max, a well-behaved dog, will start to pull at his leash and wiggle at the hips when he sees Morris across the street.
“Reuniting with him is a dream come true,” he said. “I can’t even say it in words, but I can feel it.”