Long recognized as the international signal for distress, “SOS” has also been associated with the phrase “save our soul.” And according many of its clients, San Francisco-based nonprofit Veterinary Street Outreach Services (Vet SOS) has indeed saved some souls.
Part of the San Francisco Community Clinic Consortium (SFCCC), Vet SOS was founded in 2001 and provides veterinary services to homeless people’s pets.
“Vet SOS is based on the idea from a former homeless client who grew up on the streets with her mother and dog,” says Beth Rittenhouse-Dhesi, director of community services for SFCCC. “She didn’t have money for vet care so she went to the SPCA and a veterinarian approached us to start a pilot program.”
Since its inception, the program has serviced thousands of pets. The program provides free or low-cost immunizations, exams and lab work, as well as microchip and registration, pet food, treats, grooming supplies, leashes, toys, blankets and other necessities.
“Anyone who is homeless and in San Francisco is welcome,” says Alana McGrath, Vet SOS coordinator. However, unaltered pets only get one visit before being referred for no-cost spay/neuter services. Pets that need extensive dental work or surgery are also referred to a no-cost animal clinic.
Edmundo has utilized Vet SOS services to help care for his cats, Darkness and Frisco. He tells Vet SOS that his pets keep him motivated to stay off of drugs. “I care for them more than myself,” Edmundo says. “They are my guardians during rough times.”
Vet SOS operates solely on donations, in-kind services and volunteer time. Once a month, Vet SOS sets up mobile clinics throughout the bay area for six hours a day. Typically, three to five veterinarians and three to five volunteers help about 40 patients at each clinic. Last year, the program saw 500 patients.
“We provide pet food, treats, leashes, yoga mats for the pets to sleep on and even clothes,” says McGrath. “We also have trainers volunteering.”
“I care for them more than myself,” Edmundo says. “They are my guardians during rough times.”
Many of the clients learn of the veterinary clinics through the services they are receiving at the human health clinics, but Rittenhouse-Dhesi says that Vet SOS also provides a means in which to reach out to homeless pet owners about their own health needs.
“Vet SOS is really a creative outreach service for SFCCC so we can see if the people who have these pets also need health services for themselves,” she says.
Chester, who was homeless with his dog, Pinto, said that his dog has helped him through the hardest time of his life. Chester is now in newly-secured housing with Pinto, a senior dog who is receiving veterinary care through Vet SOS.
As for people who think that homeless people shouldn’t have pets, the organization (and its clients) would disagree.
“Some people see the homeless and immediately think they shouldn’t have pets,” says McGrath. “Oftentimes, the animals are these people’s only emotional support. We hope to keep them healthy and providing that support.”
Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell is a freelance journalist and author who lives in a tiny house with her 5 dogs and husband.