by Joan Clair
[dropcap]U[/dropcap]nsheltered humans and homeless animals are both considered expendable in a society that seems to have room for neither. All too often, they share the same grim fate.
Millions of unwanted animals are abandoned, confined in shelters and euthanized, and millions of cast-off human beings are consigned to the oblivion of poverty where they are persecuted and arrested for being without a home.
When they’re abandoned to live on the streets, both homeless humans and homeless animals endure deprivation, hunger, danger, loneliness, exposure to the elements, hostile mistreatment, incarceration and greatly shortened life-spans.
The word “guardian” has been substituted in recent years for the word “owner” for those who care for an animal companion. In spite of this, animals are still considered the property of their human companions. If an animal is a mix or a mutt, as opposed to a pure breed, its value amounts to little more than the adoption fee. The exceptions to this are purebred animals such as corgis and borzois for whom there are special rescue groups should one be lost. One does not usually hear about purebred dogs being euthanized when unclaimed in a shelter.
Homeless humans are not valued highly in our society either. Because they are not “productive,” or do not have assets or a bank account, they are considered worthless by those who measure human worth in terms of money and status.
The root of the word “indigent” is “to need.” Yet a person who may be lacking or “in need” in one area (such as money, food, housing) may be plentifully endowed in another (love, loyalty, sharing). This is especially true on the part of a homeless human who is a guardian of a pet.
According to Rebecca Katz, the director of Animal Care and Control in San Francisco and one of the organizers of WOOF (a clever acronym for Wonderful Opportunities for Occupants and Fidos), many of the animals that are looked after by homeless animal guardians are among the happiest of animals. The love and devotion of a homeless person who is an animal guardian can surpass that of a guardian who is housed and financially secure.
In a society lacking in compassion for homeless people and homeless animals alike, it is remarkable to see the reciprocal acts of kindness and love shared between unsheltered people and unwanted animals.
A homeless person may spend much more time with his or her pet. Many homeless persons refuse to go into emergency shelters if their pets cannot go with them — sacrificing their own well-being and safety for the animal they have come to love. Many animal guardians who are homeless treat their pets better than they treat themselves, even feeding their pets first.
According to Katz, some homeless people refused the care offered by the Community Clinic Consortium in San Francisco until a new program named “SOS” was formed that offered care to their animal companions as well.
Steve Sapontzis, a cofounder of Second Chance Rescue, located in Fort Bragg in Mendocino County, works on behalf of animal guardians who are low-income or homeless. He and his wife, Jeanne Gocker, also a founder, are in the forefront of a growing movement.
Sapontzis said he once knew a man who turned his dog in to a shelter because, as the man explained, “we’re going on vacation — we’ll pick up another dog when we come back.” Sapontzis and Gocker contrast this attitude with that of homeless people who will do everything they can to keep a pet with them. Many homeless people are less likely to give up an animal, or abandon it to the grim fate of a “shelter,” than are well-to-do people.
Sapontzis has seen low-income, disabled people give their “meals on wheels” to their dogs and cats. Gocker said that their pet often gives them the will to continue living and to refrain from drugs. Their pet is their family and their best friend, she explained.
However, very few shelters allow homeless animal guardians to keep pets with them, with exceptions made only for officially designated service animals.
WOOF, a pilot program which recently ended in San Francisco, placed dogs considered unadoptable because of behavioral problems with formerly homeless persons who were now housed. The foster-care animal guardians were taught how to socialize the dogs and given a stipend for their work. WOOF was considered a job-training program by Community Housing Partnership, which provided the housing where the animal guardians live.
WOOF grew out of discussions between Rebecca Katz, San Francisco homelessness official Bevan Dufty, and representatives from Community Housing Partnership, among others.
Laurie Bernstein, the director of social enterprise at Community Housing Partnership, said WOOF was created to gather insights about how to structure such a program and have it included in other supportive housing programs.
At present, there is not the funding to create another such program. However, Dufty said that within the next two or three years, a new animal control and care facility will be created which will include housing for homeless animal guardians and their pets, leading to permanent housing.
Second Chance Rescue has made great strides in providing animal guardians with services for their dogs, including food, shots, and veterinary care, and offering these services in venues which formerly only provided for humans in need.
A homeless person with dogs described the dilemma of an animal guardian who is homeless: “I’m not looking for change for myself. I’m trying to buy food for my dogs. I can get something to eat at the soup kitchen, but they don’t feed my dogs there.”
Second Chance Rescue has pioneered change in this regard. They provide food for dogs of homeless animal guardians through food banks and soup kitchens in Willits and Fort Bragg. When people arrive for their food, they get food for their pets as well. However, Jeanne Gocker said that even though Second Chance provides 25,000 pounds of dog food a year, they never have quite enough.
Steve Sapontzis said Second Chance recently received a $5,000 grant from Banfield Charitable Trust which covers about half of their yearly expenses. Banfield has veterinary hospitals in the Bay Area and has set up a new category of grants to help provide food for the pets of homeless and low-income people.
Sapontzis said there is a need for more organizations to start programs like Second Chance Rescue to offer much-needed help to animal guardians who are homeless and low-income.
The WOOF program is considered a success by its organizers. However, the program attracted controversy at the beginning. Laura Bernstein said that reports about WOOF in the mainstream media brought about a lot of ugliness and prejudice. She said that there are a lot of “preconceived notions about what a homeless person is and how he or she got there.”
None of the animal guardians participating in the program were panhandlers, as reported by the press. Nor was the program created to entice panhandlers away from panhandling. All the human participants in the program were already housed.
According to Katz, one animal guardian who was a very shy person got a very shy dog. Both learned how to engage more with people.
Another animal guardian, who was a former drug user but who has been clean for four years, said he never before felt “normal.” However, as a result of his involvement in WOOF, he began to feel more a part of a community. “In the last six weeks, I spoke with more people than I have in the last four years,” he said.
Among the critics of WOOF was PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Katz commented that it surprised her that “an organization that claims to be compassionate to living things can’t be compassionate to people.”
Bernstein said that PETA had been influenced by inaccurate media portrayals of WOOF, but felt they had a responsibility to do more of their own research into the program. PETA, itself, has had its own share of criticism, but still remains a strong animal advocacy organization.
In reality, participants in WOOF were heavily screened and supervised and were not current drug users — as implied by PETA. None were panhandlers. However, even if one or more had been former panhandlers, there are many reasons why homeless people remain on the street and are forced to panhandle — yet they still can demonstrate great concern and caring for their companion animals.
The stipend offered by WOOF to the animal guardians in the program was for job training to enable these caretakers to save animals’ lives. The stipend was not a measure to reduce panhandling.
Two of the animal guardians in the program have adopted their pets. The other animals who were in the program are now considered adoptable and will not be put to sleep, which was a possibility had they not been socialized.
Free Pet Services for Homeless and Low-Income People
Pet Food Pantry, 2700 9th St., Berkeley
Call (510) 845-7735, ext.205
Free pet food to low-income pet guardians
Last Saturday every month, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.
PAW fund: Free pet vaccine clinics. 2nd and Addison St., Berkeley. (510) 390-3488
ARF (Animal Rescue Foundation)
2890 Mitchell Drive, Walnut Creek
Free spay/neuter clinic: Call 925-296-3125
Free food share for pets of low-income
people. Call (925) 256-1273, ext.463
PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support)
3170 23rd St., S.F. Call (415) 979-9550
Founded to serve animals of low-income and homeless animal guardians with AIDS.
VET SOS (Street Outreach Services)
(415) 355-2248; 1550 Bryant St., #450, S.F.
Free veterinary care and food for animals of homeless animal guardians.
Animal Care and Control
1200 15th St., S.F. Call (415) 554-6364
Free pet food for homeless animal guardians.
Fort Bragg and Willits
Second Chance Rescue
(707) 964-7770; secondchancefortbragg.org
Provides free food for dogs at places where food for homeless animal guardians is also porvided, such as the Lighthouse Church and the Food Bank in Fort Bragg and St. Anthony’s Church in Willits.