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For those living on the streets in SF, pets often take priority

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Tink and her dog, Kid Vicious, comfort each other on the sidewalk in San Francisco on Aug. 6, 2017. (Sarahbeth Maney/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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Slurp.

A slobbery tongue wagged out of the mouth of a German shepherd pitbull mix as she reached up to give her owner face kisses for a post-breakfast dessert.

Clink, clank.

Coins sporadically hit the jar at Tink’s feet, as passersby smiled down at her dog.

Tink adopted “Kid Vicious,” the 1-year-old dog, when she was just four months old. About a block away from where Tink was panhandling, her husband watched their other dog, a 9-month-old boy named “Puppy.”

She arrived in the Bay Area after hitchhiking and hopping freight trains from Arkansas about a year before. After losing her job, apartment and a custody battle for her two children to her mother-in-law, she wanted a new start.

Tink and her husband became addicted to heroin after moving to California, which she said makes living on the street “not so bad.” The couple has stayed out of The City’s shelters and currently lives in a tent encampment.

“It’s the same reason I haven’t went to rehab or anything, because they don’t allow pets,” Tink said. “I can’t lose my dog. She’s my world right now.”

For some people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco, caring for their pet takes precedence over their own needs. Although city shelters, navigation centers and local organizations have tried to break down some of the barriers, people like Tink show the resources available are still not enough.

“[Pets] offer companionship, emotional support, protection, a focus for every day,” said Bevan Dufty, a member of the BART Board of Directors and the former homeless czar in City Hall. “Overwhelmingly, I have found that people that are homeless take better care of their animals than they do of themselves.”

Dufty helped create The City’s first navigation center in 2015 that was rooted in breaking down barriers around three P’s: partners, possessions and pets. These aspects were identified as factors that keep people from being able to stay at traditional city shelters.

An assessment of the Mission District navigation center’s first six months showed that 20 percent of clients arrived with one or more pets.

“Of all the first groups of people that came in, there were many dogs and other animals … I think that the welcoming of that was a huge part of the success,” Dufty said. “I think that those animals themselves help to reduce tension and create a sense of harmony and compassion within the navigation center.”

But just one block away from one of The City’s four navigation centers near 12th and Market streets, Tink spent her Monday afternoon panhandling on the sidewalk with Kid Vicious. Navigation centers don’t have a waitlist system like traditional city shelters, and people must be referred by The City’s Homeless Outreach Team or Encampment Resolution Team to utilize them.

Tink plays with her dog, Kid Vicious, in San Francisco. (Sarahbeth Maney/Special to S.F. Examiner)

City shelters maintain a standard where pets must be documented as a service or companion animal, whereas navigation centers accept pets regardless of their documentation, according to Randolph Quezada, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.

“We want to create as low a barrier and entry point as possible, but we also have to be mindful of constraints of where we are,” said Quezada.

The shelters Next Door and The Sanctuary accept people who have animals if they can provide vaccination and companion animal paperwork within 10 days. The shelters have nurses on site every week day that can assist individuals in obtaining a companion letter.

“It’s extremely easy to get a companion animal letter from a site manager and nurse,” said Kathy Treggiari, director of programs at Episcopal Community Services. “We work with folks to serve them and get them what they need.”

The process to get the documentation can still be daunting to some, and shelters often don’t have the capacity for people with more than one pet like Tink.

Kelley Cutler, human rights organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness, said receiving required documentation can be a “huge hurdle” for some, and that Cutler would like to see more shelter opportunities for people who have pets.

“I qualify for [a service companion] but it’s hard to get one because I don’t have an address and the actual forms that say, ‘Yeah, I do have epilepsy,’” Tink said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to do, but it’s too confusing. There’s too many obstacles you have to jump over.”

On top of that, there are more than 1,000 unhoused individuals who are currently on The City’s shelter waitlist.

“The reason I think homeless shelters are reluctant to offer pet services is because they are so overcrowded, and it is a segment of society they don’t have to help,” said Genevieve Frederick, founder of Pets of the Homeless, a national organization that works to provide care to the pets of people experiencing homelessness.

A report by the Office of the Controller from August 2016 assessed 12 of the navigation center’s program elements that could be implemented by the shelter system, but the allowance of pets was categorized as a low priority.

The report stated, however, some shelters could begin accepting a limited number of pets by simply changing their policy. Others may have to invest in the construction of kennel space.

The report continued, “… a significant number of shelter beds are already open to clients with pets, and infrastructure dollars are likely best spent elsewhere… The City could investigate one-time system upgrades to the shelter reservation system to capture when a client has a pet and appropriately refer them to pet-friendly shelters.”

The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing did not provide an update as to whether any of the suggestions were implemented since the report was published.

Though city shelter case management services do not provide pet services, according to the Office of the Controller’s report, several local resources provide care for the pets of the homeless at a discounted or free cost.

Tink has accessed low cost vaccination clinics at local pet stores and often receives donated food, treats and balls from people passing by on the street. Any supplies that aren’t directly donated to her, she pays for with the money she gets from panhandling.

“I know there are some places that give vaccinations for free, but you’ve got to stand in line, you’ve got to be there super early,” Tink said. “It’s just a hassle, I don’t want to go through all that.”

Dog “Kid Vicious” lays near her owner’s possessions on the sidewalk. (Sarahbeth Maney/Special to S.F. Examiner)

A handful of organizations are working to break down the very barriers Tink is experiencing.

Veterinary Street Outreach Services provides free veterinary care to the pets of people experiencing homelessness and links humans with health care services as well. Vet SOS partners with Project Homeless Connect to provide their services several times throughout the year in one-stop-shop events where people can access a wide range of resources.

So far, 2,233 individuals have received free vet care through Project Homeless Connect events.

The San Francisco SPCA also offers free and discounted spay and neuter clinics, as well as other emergency veterinary services, to low-income and homeless people living in San Francisco.

“It’s definitely important for us for people to keep their animals and keep them healthy if they can’t afford the cost to do that,” said Shade Paul, director of hospital services at the San Francisco SPCA.

The SPCA runs a weekly wellness clinic where clients of Pets Are Wonderful Support, another organization that provides resources to low income pet owners, can come in for care.

PAWS also provides food banks and care for around 800 companion animals whose owners are their clients. Although they have a waitlist to become a client, they offer one time care packages with pet food and supplies to anyone who is in need, as well as a referral service to connect people with other city resources, according to Katherine D’Amato, the program director of PAWS.

“At PAWS, we really believe that no one should have to make a choice between their own health and their pet’s,” D’Amato said.

Some advocates in The City want to see even more resources made available.

“When it comes to any of these issues, there aren’t adequate services, period,” said Cutler, from the Coalition on Homelessness. “We are in a crisis right now.”

The Pets of the Homeless website helps to highlight aid that is available by allowing users to search for food, shelter and veterinary care in their area. Pets of the Homeless also ships new metal crates to any shelter that requests them, but Frederick said they don’t get taken up on the offer very often.

The organization works to link people with pet food and access to veterinary care across the country through the donations they receive, so that people can continue to care for their pet even if they don’t have the financial means in order to do so.

“It has been proven medically that owning a pet is beneficial both physically and mentally,” Frederick said. “That dog or cat doesn’t care if they are in a house, in a tent or in a car. They just want to be with their human.”

For now, Tink’s two dogs will continue to keep her warm at night in their tent. Kid Vicious and Puppy remain the top priorities in Tink’s life, in addition to her goal of getting clean.
Wherever she goes, she lives by one condition: her dogs come too.

“They’re our best friends, they’re our kids, we know they’re always gonna love us regardless,” she said. “They give you that unconditional love that nobody else can give you.”

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