"Rick is the only one who has ever really loved me," a man named Sam told me as he sat on a sidewalk at the end of Judah Street in the Outer Sunset. "The only one I've loved who hasn't ever hurt me," he said.
Rick, a three-year-old Chihuahua mix, sat in Sam's lap, drifting in and out of sleep.
"I don't know what I'd do without him," Sam, a self-described "outdoor sleeper" who declined to give his last name, said, as he rubbed Rick's head. "I don't always take good care of myself, but I always take good care of Rick."
Those sentiments — that animals can be our most loyal pals, and that people often treat their pets better than they treat themselves — are likely familiar to anyone who cares for an pet. (Think, for example, about how many people procrastinate about going to the doctor, but rush their cat to the vet at the slightest sneeze.) But all that is intensified when we're talking about homeless people, as for many of them their companion animals are the only bonds they have.
"What I’ve heard some of our homeless clients say is that this is the only being they feel loved by and that they have a longstanding relationship with," says Shade Paul, the San Francisco SPCA's Director of Hospital Services. "Their pets are a source of trust and love, and are often the only source of stability they have. It's a strong, strong bond."
It's a topic that teacher, author, and sociologist Dr. Leslie Irvine explores in great detail in her book, My Dog Always Eats First: Homeless People and Their Animals (recommended reading for anyone who wants to learn more about the issue). According to Irvine, who interviewed over 70 homeless people across 40 cities, as well as social workers and veterinarians, the bond between a homeless person and his or her pet is a two-way street.
"Dogs, of course, need food, medical care and shelter from the elements," Irvine says. "But they don't need a house. What they need most is human companionship, and they often get that more from homeless people than from those who own houses."
Even Irvine admits that the first time she saw a homeless person with a pet, her reaction was negative. According to The Intercept:
Irvine first tried to 'save' the canine by offering the homeless man money to buy her. When he angrily refused her money, she actually called Animal Control hoping they would 'rescue' the animal, only to be told that they were unable to act since she wasn’t being harmed.
Only later, after she began studying the relationship, did she realize that dogs are often more important to homeless people than they are to domiciled people and thus they care for them better.
All the officials I spoke with, both with city agencies and local non-profits, expressed that same belief. According to Beth Rittenhouse-Dhesi, the Director of Community Services at San Francisco's Community Clinic Consortium, a non-profit that seeks to increase access to quality community-based primary health care, while there "are outliers" in the homeless community who fulfill all our worst fears of neglect, abuse, or use of animals merely as a panhandling tool, most homeless people "consider their pets to be their family and their emotional support, and treat them as such."
"I feel sad when i hear people who don’t know say the only reasons homeless people have pets are the negative ones," Rittenhouse-Dhesi says. "I have seen first-hand the positive impact pets have had on our patients."
In Rittenhouse-Dhesi's case, the patients she's referring to are those cared for through SFCCC's Street Outreach Services (SOS). That's the mobile outreach portion of their Health Care for the Homeless program, in which vans that provide healthcare services are regularly parked at shelters like St. Anthony's, events like Project Homeless Connect, and at homeless encampments and other places where unhoused people congregate. Since 2001, SOS has also offered a program called Vet SOS, which provides free preventative and emergency veterinary care to homeless people's companion animals.
When the program, which is entirely funded by donations of money, goods, and services, began, it was one volunteer vet and one volunteer vet technician. But as the program has grown, they're now up to four vets and techs, as well as a monthly first-come/first-served clinic. The need is so great that "we could do more and still be busy," Rittenhouse-Dhesi says.
Not only are the monthly vet clinics a good way to ensure that pets cared for by homeless people are in the best possible health, they are also a "great tool to connect humans to care," Rittenhouse-Dhesi says. Deena Lahn, SFCCC's Vice President for Policy and Advocacy agrees, saying that many times, their (humancentric) street outreach teams will be rebuffed by homeless people, saying they "don't want to talk to us, don't trust us, and don't need us." But these same people will seek care for their companion animals, and that's when a bridge can be built, as once they build a relationship with their vet and see "that they aren't being judged," they will open up to SOS volunteers about the health care needs they, themselves are facing.
"The nonjudgmental aspect cannot be overemphasized," Lahn says. "These are people who are judged every day... but they find a way to overcome that fear of judgement to seek care for the animals in their lives in a way they couldn't for themselves." But once that initial connection is made via pet, homeless people will continue to seek SOS assistance for their own health care, and though it's not SOS's mission to "get people into shelters," Lahn says, SOS has numerous accounts (some of which appear on their website) of homeless clients for whom vet care was the bridge to health care, supportive housing, and, eventually, a life of self-sufficiency.
But even though a pet can be a route and inspiration to a life off the streets, it can also be an impediment. What does a homeless person do with their pets while they, say, go apply for food stamps, or Medi-Cal, or other social services? That, Rittenhouse-Dhesi admits, is an "unmet need" in San Francisco, as many buildings prohibit the admittance of non-service animals.
Ariana Luchsinger, a Behavior & Training Supervisor at San Francisco Animal Care & Control, agrees, saying that for many homeless people, their only option is to leave their pet with a friend, who may or may not be trustworthy.
"Many of these animals, while well-socialized on the street, have separation anxiety and run away" from their temporary minders, often homeless people themselves. "Other people have their dogs stolen... that's something we see all the time."
Another challenge, familiar to anyone housed or unhoused in the Bay Area, is the difficulty to find even temporary housing when you have pets. "It's incredibly difficult even for the well-resourced!" Luchsinger says. Other then San Francisco's Homeless Navigation Centers, for which there is a lengthy waiting list, most shelters refuse to accept animals, or do so only on a seemingly arbitrary "case-by-case basis." But even if a pet guardian gets a slot in a Nav Center, they're still kind of stuck, as Nav Center staffers are "busting their butts trying to find housing for their clients, but for people with pets there's often nowhere to go."
Rittenhouse-Dhesi also noted that "even supportive housing has a lot of limitations," including, in most cases, a refusal to allow companion (as opposed to service) animals. So, instead, Lahn says, people will end up "choosing a life with their pet over a most traditional life," and back on the street they go.
While pet guardians are in the Nav Centers, Luchsinger says, the ACC works to support them by providing residents with monthly dog training clinics (as well as support for non-dog pets). "Quite frequently," Luchsinger says, when we see what looks like a homeless person abusing a dog, by frantically or abruptly pulling on its leash, "it's not mistreatment, it's a gap in education." So the ACC comes in and provides humane leashes and collars, swapping them out for the makeshift ropes, belts, and collars some animals might have arrived in.
In addition, the ACC helps provide more information on services available for homeless pet guardians, like the SF SPCA's free spay and neutering programs for homeless clients, and the low or no cost services the SPCA provides.
Some of the SPCA's vet care is provided through Vet SOS, and other services are provided on the SPCA's Mission campus, Paul says, with their recently-acquired Pacific Heights campus getting in on things once "our computer systems are integrated." The SPCA has a $25,000/annual grant to provide free emergency care for homeless people's animals, and also does free lab work for SOS, as well as provides them with some medical supplies and medicine.
As with everyone with whom I spoke, Paul was adamant that animals are an important part of many homeless people's lives, and something that deserves approbation, not dismissal.
"The SPCA seeks to support the bond between people and animals in all the work we do," Paul said. "We don’t want to see homeless people's animals in a shelter, we want to keep them with their guardians."
Even with all three of these — as well as the many other agencies supporting homeless people in SF — that can't always happen. As much as people love their animals, owner surrenders due to eviction are skyrocketing at the ACC, Luchsinger says, and homeless people who have no option but to leave the streets sometimes give up their animals too, as it is "incredibly hard to find a shelter that will house your pet."
But if they don't urgently need to leave the streets, Luchsinger says, "they'll stay in a tent. That's their only option."
So we see a conundrum, here. As Rittenhouse-Dhesi says, "I have seen firsthand the positive impact pets have had on our patients... addicts who have entered treatment, gotten clean, and have since moved indoors, crediting it all to their relationship with a dog." And yet, the dog is also what will keep them from moving indoors.
So, if we're talking about solutions, as those of us writing during the week of the SF Homeless Project are encouraged to, one obvious — albeit enormously difficult — solution would be for organizations seeking to house (temporarily or permanently) homeless people to make it easier for them to being their pets with them as they move indoors.
A second way to help would be for an agency or non-profit to fill the "unmet need" of a pet-sitting service for homeless people. So far, the only one is provided by the SF SPCA during bimonthly Project Homeless Connect events. But one in a central location or near services would, Luchsinger says "be awesome...hard, but awesome," and would enable people to leave their animals in a safe place as they seek ways to better their situations or leave the streets.
And finally, of course, there's the role pets can play in helping formerly homeless people in that delicate and pivotal time between the streets and self-sufficiency, when they're in supportive housing. You might recall Wonderful Opportunities for Occupants and Fidos (WOOF), the collaboration between the ACC and City Hall that made headlines in 2012, when pre-screened residents of supportive housing took charge of San Francisco shelter dogs.
Though the program "was a success," ACC spokesperson Deb Campbell says, it ended after only four months due to lack of funding.
According to a Chron report from 2012, the program was initially funded by a $10,000 grant from Vanessa Getty, with the expectation that then-homeless czar Bevan Dufty would "seek more philanthropic donations." But those donations, it appears, never came, and the program ended only after four or five adoptions. When contacted by SFist, Dufty explained that negative attention from activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had a "chilling effect" on future donations. "It's just so unfortunate," Dufty says, "that PETA allowed hatred of poor people to kill off what could have been such an important program."
"We weren't well-placed for it," Luchsinger says, and there wasn't enough staff or resources to support what was a "very expensive" program that included training for both pet and guardian. But a program like that, where people on the bubble have a chance to improve their lives through a bond with an animal could be a huge tool in keeping people off the streets.
"The people that I interact with say that their pets are a huge, huge piece of why they don't completely give up" Luchsinger says.
"So many of these people," Rittenhouse-Dhesi says of homeless people, "are so so socially isolated. With a relationship with an animal, some of them experience love and companionship for the first time, and end up providing care and companionship for animals who would otherwise end up in shelter, or worse."
So the question for shelters and providers of supportive housing, I guess, is what can they do to keep that bond intact? I know it wouldn't be a simple small thing, to open their doors to pets, but it seems like a concrete change that could substantially change or save lives.