Providing care to people experiencing homelessness—and their pets
Veterinarian Jon Geller was in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2015 when he had a “silent conversation” with a man who was homeless and sitting with his dog on a bridge.
It got Geller thinking: Various veterinary programs exist for pet owners with limited financial means, but many of these options wouldn’t help people who have no money at all. Geller did some research and determined that about 100,000-150,000 pets are living on the streets with their owners.
So, he started a nonprofit near his home in northern Colorado, The Street Dog Coalition, for some of the most forgotten members of our communities.
Geller shared more about this work and his experiences on the podcast “People Are Animals Too, Darnit!” with its host Mandy Evans, who is also the executive director of Idaho’s Better Together Animal Alliance.
Free Veterinary Care and Trust-Building
The Street Dog Coalition provides free veterinary care to pets of people who are experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness.
Since 2015, the nonprofit has expanded to include teams in about 40 U.S. cities, with 10 more in the works.
The Street Dog Coalition provides each of its teams with veterinary supplies, tents, tables, coolers, insurance, forms, rabies tags and more. Each team can decide if they want to set up a clinic at a certain location, like a homeless shelter; go to encampments where unsheltered people live; or be part of large, multi-service events.
The work of The Street Dog Coalition is based on the One Health model of combining multiple healthcare professionals in one place: veterinarians, nurses, medical doctors, social workers and more.
Often, by developing a relationship with people through their pets, veterinarians can alert them to other services that are available.
“Folks who are living on the street are wary of authority,” said Geller. “They have some track record with that. What we’ve noticed is that veterinarians are able to establish a strong trust fairly quickly with these folks who are distrustful of other people just in general, because we have this common interest in the pet. Their pet is really the thing that provides purpose for their lives in many cases. It opens up a gateway to these other services.”
Clinic volunteers will alert the clients to other medical services that are available. Most recently, they’ve given people access to COVID-19 vaccines.
Unique Challenges of Street Medicine and Shrugging Off Stereotypes
The Street Dog Coalition practices what Geller calls “street medicine,” which differs from care in a veterinary office or hospital.
“We do try to push the envelope in looking at: What kind of work can we actually do in these street settings?” he said.
Most animals that come to their events are pretty healthy, with only minor medical care needed.
But it does require adjusting protocols. For example, you might only get one chance to see a pet and then never hear from the owner again. While the organization tries to develop ongoing relationships, the veterinarians always have to see how they can be more effective in their protocols. This could mean switching vaccine scheduling and boosters, for example.
This work also differs from Geller’s previous experience as an emergency veterinarian and at vaccine clinics, when he had limited contact with clients and just tried to see as many pets as possible.
“We really look at the quality of the interaction with the pet owners,” Geller said. “[That] is how we measure success, trying to develop trust and mutual respect.”
Plus, everyone can see that the bond their clients have with their pets is huge. In fact, many may have become, or at least remain, homeless because they refuse to part with their pets.
“As we go down the line, we see so many ways that these pets are barriers to their own lives,” Geller said. “They can’t get on public transportation. Because they have pets, they can’t (literally) go through so many doors. They can’t go into the grocery store, they can’t go into the doctor’s office, they can’t go to a job interview.”
Only 6% of homeless shelters in the 100 biggest cities in the United States allow pets, unless they are service animals, according to a study his organization conducted.
Another unique challenge of this work is spreading the word about the clinics in the first place.
“We’re really exploring ways to get the word out but without spilling over into the general pet-owning population, which can really overwhelm us,” said Geller.
They once put flyers up for a clinic and over 500 pets showed up, from various socioeconomic categories. Now, the organization tries to work with homeless services and animal control officers, who hand out business cards advertising their events to people living with their pets on the street.
How Animal Shelters Can Help
The work Geller is doing these days is even more critical, as the COVID-19 eviction crisis is starting, and topics of racism and social justice are at the forefront of national conversation.
“The issues that people are facing, regarding poverty, social injustice and racism, are all interconnected with providing care, even to people’s pets,” said Geller. “Even though it seems like a whole separate event, it turns out that it’s not.”
The animal sheltering field can help by challenging their attitudes about pet ownership.
“These pets provide the primary purpose to a lot of these people’s lives, and so much more: [including] protection,” said Geller.
Animal shelters can develop street medicine teams to do similar work or maybe let homeless people and their pets stay overnight.
They can consider adopting animals to individuals experiencing homelessness, as long as the proper safety nets, like veterinary and caseworker support, are in place, Geller added. He hasn’t heard of a shelter doing that yet. He knows it won’t be easy, but he also knows there are so many things the animal welfare field can do to support people who are living on the streets with their pets.
“There are so many opportunities,” said Geller, “[and] shelters, really I see, are a big part of it.”