Homelessness is a crisis in the United States. On a single night in 2018, more than half-a-million people were in emergency shelters, temporary housing or on the street, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Homelessness is also increasing in Australia. The Australian Bureau of Statistics says the number of homeless Australians increased by 14 per cent to 116,427 between censuses in 2011 and 2016.
Politicians and activists in the US have begun including pets of the homeless in deliberations about how to get them into provisional shelter or permanent homes. A growing awareness that pets play a positive role in the lives of their homeless owners appears to be an important asset in providing effective assistance.
In California, where the number of people experiencing homelessness surged 16 per cent in 2019, and where half of all America’s homeless are thought to be located, the state has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars toward the problem. It is estimated that 10–20 per cent of homeless people have pets and many refuse shelter because they cannot bring their pets with them. In 2019, for the first time, under California Senate Bill 258 (SB 258), legislators set aside $5 million for shelters that provide food, shelter and basic veterinary care for pets of homeless people. The text of SB 258 recognizes the important role pets play in the lives of homeless people. It states, “Pets provide warmth, security, and companionship to many who sleep on the streets,” and “Pets also provide a type of normalcy, as providing food and water for their pets helps some homeless persons connect with reality.” While SB 258 passed the state Senate 37-0 in May, it failed to get a vote in the Assembly. Nonetheless the grants program could move forward without the bill as funding was independently approved in the budget. The funds will be distributed as grants to qualifying programs. While California showed a governmental initiative, several grassroots efforts build on a long tradition of veterinary professionals volunteering at free clinics and animal shelters and offering discounted services to pet owners of limited means.
Seattle Veterinary Outreach
In 2019 in Seattle, a city that ranks third in the US for the number of people experiencing homelessness the Seattle Veterinary Outreach (SVO), a non-profit organization was founded. It offers veterinary wellness care (microchipping, vaccinating and providing doses of flea and deworming medication) in neighborhoods where many homeless people live. SVO also maintains a schedule of repeat visits to partner organizations such as food banks, cafes, recovery support centers and shelters for women, children and families.
Founding veterinarian Hanna Ekstrom donates her time as executive director. Partner organizations are charged $150 per clinic to cover petrol and insurance. Volunteers include vets, vet technicians and other assistants. SVO has four employees, including a former client, a pre-veterinary medicine student and a pre-med student. Ekstrom looks for volunteers to work at least four times a year. SVO covers expenses through financial and in-kind donations. It has received two grants: one for $9,200 in May 2019 from the Seattle Foundation and another from the Jacobi Family Foundation for $25,000.
While Ekstrom sees her work as geared to the person as much as to the pet, her long-term goal is to expand to include a human health practitioner, a psychiatrist or psychologist, a substance abuse counselor, and a caseworker, to make the most of each interaction. Besides pet records, she collects data from those owners willing to provide it, and hopes the information can help inform local policy.
What has become clear to Ekstrom is that while many homeless people struggle with depression and addiction, their pets help prevent self-destructive actions. One client with a chihuahua reported that her dog “keeps me from going to jail” because she no longer shoplifts, for fear she will be arrested and lose her dog.
Ekstrom does not believe that people who cannot afford to care for a pet do not deserve one. “Many of these people have next to nothing. Their pet is their lifeline,” she said. “How can we take that away from them? [We need to] help them through that lifeline to extend their relationships to others, so they can connect with society at large.”
Pets of the Homeless
in Nevada, Genevieve Frederick, a retired marketing executive, discovered that homeless people with pets often go hungry so their pets can eat. She established Pets of the Homeless (POH) in 2008 with the purpose of providing donated food and supplies to shelters in the Carson City area. That effort has swelled to 351 donation sites around the country. Today, POH describes itself as the only national organization dedicated to providing food and emergency veterinary care to companion animals owned by people experiencing homelessness. POH tries to make free veterinary services available to any homeless person with a pet requiring emergency care.
Frederick, her daughter Renee Lowry (the executive director) and two case managers handle the calls. They verify the status of the caller with a social worker or a manager at a food bank, and then look for a veterinarian close to the caller. POH pays the veterinary clinic directly, usually asking for a 20 per cent discount. Treatments must be pre-approved and there is a cap on what POH can pay per pet, based on its annual fundraising, which is between $500 and $800. The average payment per pet in 2018 was $290.
POH’s network comprises veterinary hospitals and clinics in 451 cities in 47 US states and Canada. The organization fielded 17,000 calls between January 2015, and August 2019, and had supported 4306 emergency visits for more than $800,000. Wound care, treatment for parvovirus and dental extractions were the most common reasons the pets required veterinary attention.
Street Dog Coalition
Jon Geller formerly was a co-owner of a group of emergency care hospitals in Colorado. Now he is dedicated full-time to projects that help disadvantaged people and their pets and has founded Street Dog Coalition (SDC) a non-profit that helps set up free wellness clinics.
In 2015, he headed up the original Street Dog clinic across the street from a resource center for people experiencing homelessness. A team of veterinarians, technicians, students and other volunteers provided free care on their first day for 25 dogs and five cats. Since then, SDC has inspired additional clinics elsewhere in Colorado and in 30 other US cities. Geller found many veterinarians contacted him, wanting advice on how to start clinics where they live. Consequently, SDC has developed a protocol and resources to help veterinarians. In return, the new clinics commit to running at least two clinics per year.
SDC handles most of the fundraising and grant applications and provides financial support for the cost of running the clinics and supplies. In addition, it helps with planning, insurance and bookkeeping. The SDC clinics usually provide basic preventive care and diagnose and treat minor medical problems. In addition, they provide vouchers for low-cost and sometimes free spay and neuter surgeries, which it purchases from area clinics.
In keeping with the One Health philosophy that believes the health of humans, animals and the planet are intertwined, some SDC clinics have coordinated their efforts with other medical professionals. In Chicago, an SDC team travels with Chicago Street Medicine, a program involving medical students from the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Urbana-Champaign. In Detroit, an SDC clinic partners with Detroit Street Medicine, a program run by students from Wayne State University School of Medicine and a social work team from Burners without Borders.
All three founders of these organizations have stated in television and radio interviews that they witnessed how important pets are for people. As Geller said, “They have come out and told me that they would probably have committed suicide without them.” Work within and with these organizations has given new meaning to the life of many volunteers. “I started seeing veterinary medicine as a bubble insulated from the issues unfolding outside its boundaries: homelessness, poverty, racism, addiction, but this work with the homeless has helped me break out of that bubble and feel more engaged.”