When homelessness hits, a pet can be the most important companion

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Dogs barked and yelped amid a hive of activity in Santa Ana’s civic center. Cats were there, too.  But their presence was more muted, stowed away in carriers. Owners came by the dozens over a few hours on a Saturday morning to take part in a free clinic for the pets of homeless people.

Vets and vet techs — many of them volunteers — assessed each animal and dealt with simple problems. At the end of the line, several high school students handed out free pet food.

At a recent free clinic in Santa Ana, an owner lifts up her dog, so a vet technician can take a look at its belly. (Photo: Susan Valot) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)
Vet tech Tech Shannon Newmyer holds a dog as veterinarian Todd Kopit looks closely at a rash on top of the animal’s head. (Photo: Susan Valot) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

These clinics began about a year ago as a partnership between the nonprofit Animal Health Foundation and HEART — Healthcare and Emergency Animal Rescue Team. They travel around once a month to locations in Orange County where they can reach homeless pet owners.

“What’s been overlooked is the percentage of homeless population that actually has dogs and cats,” said Dr. Mark Malo, a veterinarian with the Animal Health Foundation. “But unless the pets can get help, it adds to the bigger health concerns both for the pet population and the human population, as well.”

King Baron, a fluffy Bichon Frise mix, sat in the shade at the end of the line, near the food table, panting and calmly looking around. His owner, Marie Sanchez sat nearby, waiting for word on King Baron’s health condition.

Sanchez said her dog has helped her get through being homeless over the years, when she lost her Section 8 housing. He provided much needed companionship and love at a time when she needed it the most. He now lives with her in public housing.

“He’s the best thing for me. I needed someone. And he’s unconditional love,” Sanchez said, pointing out that with only a small disability income, she still needs to bring 12-year-old King Baron to the clinic because annual shots and care add up.

On this day, Sanchez made arrangements with the vet to go get x-rays to take a closer look at King Baron’s heart and lungs.

The group HEART and the non-profit Animal Health Foundation provide regular clinics for the pets of homeless people, such as this recent one in downtown Santa Ana. (Photo: Susan Valot) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The groups running the clinics estimate that 70 percent of Orange County’s homeless population has at least one pet. But that’s something annual point-in-time counts don’t tally.  Only one homeless shelter nearby allows animals. Because of that, many homeless people choose to stay on the streets because they don’t want to desert what may be the only loyal family they’ve known.

“There’s so many … animals that are going without basic care. Just vaccines and dewormings and taking care of basic needs. Skin problems. Ears. Things that most people take for granted when they go to their family vet,” said Dr. Todd Kopit, who helps run the clinics. “A lot of them can’t afford it or even do it and so the animal suffers.”

Kopit and his wife left their private veterinarian practice to create HEART, which provides low-income animal care. They spent their own money to convert their family RV into the rolling vet clinic.

“How’s everything going for her? Coughing? Sneezing?” asked vet tech Shannon Newmyer as she checked out a dog. The owner told her that the dog had a rash on its head and maybe an ear infection. Newmyer cleaned its ears, gave it its shots and then got help to shave its head to treat the rash. She trimmed its nails.

“You leave feeling so fulfilled that you helped animals and people,” Newmyer said.

By the end of the day, the clinic had helped about 40 people, including the owner of a new litter of puppies and another dog that had a seizure.

There is a darker side, though. Some homeless people breed and sell dogs in encampments for drug money. Some pets get sick when they’re exposed to toxins like meth. But the vets said most people here treat their pets like loving family members and would feed their pets before they feed themselves.

“There’s a mentality that ‘why do they have pets if they’re homeless?'” said volunteer John Acevedo. “But these pets help these homeless keep hope going. They keep them off drugs. They really do help a lot of these homeless people stay afloat, stay alive and have a will to survive.”

The program hopes it will be able to scrape together enough grants and donations to keep going. But one thing it does not have to scrape together is a feeling of gratefulness which was evident in people’s voices.

“Thank you, doc. You’re a blessing, man,” said one pet owner to Kopit. Then the man walked off with his dog, happy.