Concern about the homeless can pour in over the chilly winter months and, in San Francisco, not even their dogs and cats escape notice.
Ilana Strubel, who has five dogs and two cats herself, started Veterinary Street Outreach Services, or VetSOS, in 2001 to address that specific problem. Since then, she said, the mobile veterinarian team has taken care of more than 500 pets that belong to homeless people.
The van attempts to approach the animals where homeless people dwell, Strubel said: in Potrero Hill’s Warm Water Cove, around junkyards and back alleys in the Bayview district, near Golden Gate Park’s famed Hippie Hill and on the slopes of Dolores Park.
“We’re outreach,” said Strubel, who also works at a veterinary hospital in Pacifica.
“We actually go out in the street where people are living and provide care.”
The services provided by the team on the second Friday of every month include vaccinations, flea control and testing for diseases such as worms and feline leukemia. The homeless also come out for donated pet food, leashes, collars, toys, raincoats and muzzles.
As word gets out, the number of homeless pets that receive help every year grows. In 2005, the outreach team took care of 135 dogs and cats. That number more than doubled in 2006 and this year’s numbers look to best that, she said. It is only a percentage, however, compared with the 6,377 homeless people in San Francisco tallied this year by The City.
Strubel said many of the homeless pets she encounters are taken care of better than some pets that have homes, and owners often try to find food for their pets before themselves.
“There are many people out there who pass judgment,” Strubel said. “They think that someone who’s homeless shouldn’t have a pet.”
Pet owners are required to sign a statement verifying that they are homeless. Pets must also be spayed or neutered, which is offered free of charge.
VetSOS also makes referrals when emergency boarding can help an owner who is sick, incarcerated or enrolled in rehab. Oftentimes, the pet can’t go with them, so Animal Care and Control will take the animal for up to two weeks, all on the VetSOS referral. Four other nonprofit groups and associations work with the outreach team.
VetSOS is part of the Community Clinic Consortium, a group of nonprofit medical clinics that mostly serves patients of the human persuasion. The mobile veterinary team also frequently encourages pet owners to have their own medical conditions checked out.