Spend any time in a city and you’ve seen it—am older man rummaging through a trash can for bottles or his next meal, a young puppy playfully at his side, or a dirty teenager clothes held together with patches asking passerby’s for change with a dog curled up on a blanket near her feet. The site of a dog living on the streets with a person experiencing homelessness tugs at the heartstrings of many, even people who are normally made uncomfortable by the site of homeless folks, and wouldn’t give a second glance to someone in the same circumstance who wasn’t accompanied by a dog. There are an estimated 3.5 million people who experience homeless in the United States on an annual basis, and like every other segment of our population many of them are dog lovers, and many of them (an estimated 5-10%) share their lives with companion animals, the reality of which often leaves dog lovers concerned about the welfare of the dog.
Although Rhode Island is expected to pass the nations first Homeless Bill Of Rights, which will formally ban discrimination against homeless individuals and grant them equal access to jobs, housing and services, there is a national trend where many cities legislating discrimination against homeless residents by outlawing behaviors like eating, sleeping, and panhandling in public spaces. While San Francisco is one of those cities that has in recent years passed what are commonly referred to as sit/lie ordinances criminalizing the daily survival activities for homeless residents, starting August 1st, the city is breaking new ground by taking a friendlier and fuzzier approach at decreasing behaviors associated with homelessness—specifically panhandling. Wonderful Opportunities for Occupants and Fidos, or WOOF as it is being called is a new program, the first in the nation that is pairing homeless individuals with difficult to place dogs in the shelter system. The individuals will receive financial incentives ($50-75 per week) to care for the dogs instead of panhandling. They will also receive vet care, dog training classes, leashes, toys and food for the dogs in their care courtesy of Animal Care and Control.
Program participants will go through an intensive screening process by the San Francisco Animal Care and Control program to assess stability and appropriate fit for the program. Individuals cannot be street-homeless and must be residents of a supportive housing program. They will also need to prove that they do not have a history of violence, aren’t in substance abuse treatment, and are not severely mentally ill. Additionally, because the program is specifically aimed at stopping panhandling in the city, program participants must commit to not panhandle while participating, and if caught doing so they will be removed from the program and the puppy returned to the shelter. WOOF will give difficult to place dogs the chance to have one-on-one human contact and exposure to living in a home, while giving the homeless participants an opportunity to gain animal-related skills that may be transferable into the job market.
WOOF is the newest in a growing trend of social service providers who are recognizing the unique and powerful bond between people and dogs and pairing individuals who are experiencing homelessness with dogs in order to foster a mutually beneficial relationship. Outside In a leading homeless youths service provider in Portland Oregon runs the groundbreaking Virginia Woof Doggie Daycare facility, which now has two locations in the Portland area. Virginia Woof is more than another daycare option in Portland, it is a job training program that hires homeless youth, giving them dog training and work experience in the ever-growing doggie daycare industry.
Virginia Woof and now WOOF are two examples of great programs that are working to pair individuals experiencing homelessness with dogs with the intent to develop workplace skills, but there are also an increasing number of programs that are working directly with homeless people who are the guardians of companion animals. UC Davis Veterinary School runs the Mercer Veterinary Clinic for the Homeless, a student operated organization that offers free medical care through a monthly clinic for the pets of homeless people in the community. Others, like the nonprofit organization Pets of The Homeless works to provide pet food and veterinary medical care to the pets of those experiencing homelessness across the country.
Many dog lovers struggle with understanding why someone who is homeless would choose to have a dog, but think for a moment about the important role dogs play in so many of our lives, the unconditional love and nonjudgmental companionship. For many homeless people who have been thrown away or abandoned by families and communities a relationship to a dog is the most important and secure relationship they have in their life. It is unfortunately often those same vital relationships that keep people street homeless instead of homeless shelters, as most shelters do not permit people to bring animals with them. Thus, many people unwilling to be separated from their dogs live in their cars, or on the streets in order to remain with their dogs. There are however an increasing number of drop-in centers, especially targeted at youth who allow clients to bring their well-behaved companion animals into the center and not forcing them to choose between access to needed social services and their beloved dogs.
As an advocate for both human and animal rights, I applaud the steps being made by WOOF and other programs to work proactively with homeless communities and dogs. I also look forward to the day when amongst dog lovers talking about programs and support for individuals experiencing homelessness receives as many smiles and as much support as talking about of homeless dogs on the streets and in shelters.