by Jon Geller, DVM
National Director & founder, The Street Dog Coalition
As panic and anxiety bubble over for many of us dealing with both the medical and non-health-related hardships resulting from the global COVID-19 pandemic, those pet owners living on the streets find a hard life made harder.
Many community meal services have been cut; homeless shelters are shut down or have limited availability; public transit is cut or greatly reduced; and even the comradery of clustering around barrel fires or heater vents is discouraged.
“Rough sleepers” vs. “cover your ass” mentality
This, combined with camping bans, and the restrictions that already kept homeless people with pets out of shelters and other service facilities, has cast a dark gloom over rough sleepers, meaning those who are unsheltered, including most indigent pet owners.
Street outreach, human and veterinary, has been scaled back as cities pull permits and organizations cancel events out of fear combined with a cover-your-ass mentality.
In an ironic twist, the very people who are at highest risk of becoming infected with a highly transmissible virus like COVID-19 are made even more vulnerable. The chronically homeless, those with underlying respiratory disease from years of sleeping outside on cold sidewalks, are often immunosuppressed after years of smoking, battles with drugs and alcohol, mental health disorders, and an elevated incidence of HIV infection.
When even the richest cannot buy hand sanitizer, what of the poorest?
Even at the best of times these individuals lack adequate access to bathrooms and showers, laundry facilities, hand-washing stations and simple provisions such as hand sanitizer, soap and toothpaste.
When even the most privileged and most affluent 1% of our society cannot buy hand sanitizer, how are the homeless to fare?
Street medicine teams, such as those with Boston Healthcare for the Homeless, Chicago Night Ministry, and Detroit Street Medicine, risk their own health as they treat patients under bridges and behind shopping centers. Veterinary street medicine teams face the same risks, but our risk/benefit equations are different: how much value do we place on the lives of the pets of those experiencing homelessness, and their relationships with their owners?
How would the loss of dogs affect the homeless?
There are estimated to be about 300,000 unsheltered homeless people in the US, with the highest numbers in California, by far. About 10%, on average, have pets, so there may be about 30,000 pets (90% of them dogs) who are living on the streets with their owners.
Homeless pet owners are usually highly committed to their pets, but some may nonetheless not be the best pet owners.
I met a somewhat ill-appearing older man with a fine-looking German shepherd in front of the parking lot of a homeless shelter last week. He asked me if there was some new virus around, and said that he had been “away” for a week. He indicated that he and his dog were sleeping in a small stairwell behind the local Walmart. He was a meth addict and alcoholic, and so was his wife, who was currently in a residential treatment plan.
He indicated he was two days clean, but was just coming off a 10 day “bender.”
I was surprised at how good his dog looked, considering, but it made me wonder if this man should even be allowed to keep his dog. But how would the loss of his dog, on top of the additional hardships imposed by COVID-19, affect him?
What is an “essential service”?
Will we be seeing an increase in suicides as the virus devastates lives in different ways?
Not least in my thoughts is this new risk equation: should our veterinary teams even be on the street caring for pets of the homeless during the epidemic?
Are rabies or parvo virus vaccination, or heartworm and flea protection, officially categorized as “essential” services, even though veterinary medicine is considered essential?
The science-y brain says “stay away”––but is now the time to abandon those so close to the edge of the cliff?
Jon Geller, DVM, an ANIMALS 24-7 supporter since our debut in 2014, is founder and National Director of The Street Dog Coalition, which is currently providing free medical care and other related services to pets of the homeless in 40 US cities.