Jernika Robinson hugs her dog, King, after his check-up at the Vet SOS clinic in San Francisco, California. Robinson was relieved to have a clean bill of health for her puppy. “We do everything together,” she says. (Brittany Hosea-Small/KQED)
The saying "dogs are a man's best friend" is just a phrase, but to those living on the streets and battling housing insecurity, it can be the honest truth. For people who are contending with homelessness, their companion animals are the world to them. They are their family, their children and their sense of security. But getting proper medical care for their animals can often be even harder than getting it for themselves.
This is where Veterinary Street Outreach Services comes in. Vet SOS is a veterinary pop-up clinic run through the San Francisco Community Clinic Consortium's Street Outreach Services, and provides free veterinary care to the companion animals of San Francisco's homeless community. Founded 10 years ago by local veterinarian Ilana Strubel, the clinics happen 12 times a year. Each clinic is staffed entirely by volunteers, from the intake staff all the way to the veterinarians themselves.
November's clinic was held at Warm Water Cove Park in San Francisco, where 24 patients were seen. Eight of those patients were new to Vet SOS, but most of them were returning patients, including Gurrl and Scrappy, two 10-year-old pointers. Their owner, Frank, first brought Scrappy to the pop-up clinic six years ago. When he first lost his housing, Frank was living in a car with them and was in a bind for resources. He heard about the clinic through word of mouth from a friend and decided to give it a try.
Bianca Zampieri is one of three volunteer veterinarians working at the November pop-up at Warm Water Cove Park in San Francisco. Zampieri began working with the clinic as part of her internship after veterinary school. “I think it’s really great,” say Zampieri. She's very happy that she can do this as part of her internship process.
Lawrence Gomez has had his 7-year-old pit bull, Diamond, since she was 1 year old. “She was the best gift I ever got in my life,” Gomez says.
"They take care of my dog,” Gomez says. “I wouldn’t take her anywhere else.”
Gomez learned about Vet SOS during a Homeless Connect event he attended in San Francisco. “They treat her like she’s special,” says Gomez. “If this place ever went away, a lot of people would be lost.”
The locations of the clinics vary every month and so do the number of patients. On average, Vet SOS sees 41 new and returning clients at each clinic. However, October's clinic, which was held at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, saw a record high for the year with 86 patients.
Clinics at the auditorium are always popular and busy, says Alana McGrath, an outreach worker with Street Outreach Services. McGrath says that Warm Water Cove Park is often a much quieter clinic location, and there are many clients who can go only there.
While several of the volunteers at the clinic are new, there are many that have been working with the organization since the beginning. Dr. Phil Durfee has been volunteering his veterinary services for nearly nine years. After retiring from his veterinary practice and moving to San Francisco, Durfee became involved with the clinic thanks to one of the founding members, Ilana Strubel.
While Vet SOS accepts all varieties of animals, only one cat was seen at the clinic in November, a distinguished older gray cat named Roxanne.
Unlike the canine patients, Roxanne was seen inside the Vet SOS clinic van, where she was able to walk freely with her owner, Chandra Carol.
Carol has had Roxanne for nearly 12 years and has brought her to the clinic for the past seven years.
Earlier this year, Roxanne began growing a large cyst on her neck that became infected. Thanks to the Vet SOS staff, they were able to get Roxanne in for surgery to have it removed. Roxanne is now fully recovered and is a devoted patient of the clinic.
“I’m so lucky,” Carol says. “The homeless people really need their pets. Having this just helps us out, makes us feel like good parents.”
Betty Burri has been volunteering with Vet SOS since the beginning 10 years ago.
“You bond with the people and their animals,” Burri says. “A lot of people keep coming back, and they take care of their dogs so well."
An average volunteer day at the clinic consists of setting up tables and boxes of supplies and preparing for the patients before they arrive. Once the clients have been checked in, they can come to the supply area and get whatever is needed for their pets. Boxes are loaded full of toys, collars and leashes. Alongside them, bags of food and animal treats of all varieties are stacked. There are even sweaters available for any four-legged patients that need help combating the cold.
One of the new patients to Vet SOS last month was a 6-month-old puppy named King. His owner, Jernika Robinson, brought him in for his core puppy vaccines after discovering Vet SOS through an online search for vaccination clinics.
After receiving a clean bill of health, Robinson was relieved to have King returned to her waiting arms.
“We do everything together," says Robinson as she hugs him.