Homeless pets get help; impact could extend to their owners

SEATTLE — Cheryl Hamilton has been clean and sober for nine months. She credits her pair of cats, Jinx and Fred.

The bond between people and pets can be strong, and in Hamilton’s case, it could be what keeps her off the street.

“I lost them for six months, and it broke my heart,” said Hamilton as she wiped away a tear.

That’s when Dr. Hanna Ekstrom leaned in and told her, We won’t let that happen again.”

Ekstrom is the mastermind behind a new program taking place in front of the Saint Vincent de Paul Food Bank. She teamed up with the food bank Friday for a holiday event. Homeless people from throughout the city were invited, with some being brought by bus.

The lure is to get free veterinary care from Seattle Veterinary Outreach, but the impact can be much bigger than the pint-sized pets getting vaccines and medicine.

“We’ve realized that people will come and hang out,” explained Ekstrom. “They begin to trust us, and when that happens, we can connect them to social services.”

It’s a connection that makes more sense when you get to know the people showing up.

“I would say in most of the cases, the pets are more important than themselves,” said David Sanchez, the director of operations at the Saint Vincent de Paul Food Bank. “They protect these dogs with their lives. They are all the time trying to keep them warm, all the time trying to keep them sheltered.”

For the past several years, the food bank has been providing pet food for the homeless. It’s been asking for years for more help. In some cases, according to Sanchez, people are more willing to seek help for a pet than themselves.

On Friday, there was a tent set up for The Whole Cat and Kaboodle, where pet owners can get their loved ones free haircuts. Ideal Option, a substance abuse treatment facility, is set up right next door and offering up help to those walking by.

“We’re just trying to meet people where they are,” said Melody Clark, an employee from Ideal Option. “We thought this was a good event to do that.”

In the future there will be similar events. Seattle Veterinary Outreach even has plans to hire additional vet techs and a social worker.

How successful the program is may depend on the connections it makes, but Ekstrom believes the clinic is getting closer to making an impact on the homeless community in Seattle.

“I really feel like we’re still finding our feet,” she said. “This is just the beginning.”