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For people experiencing homelessness, having a pet can provide valuable companionship, mental health benefits, security and opportunities for responsibility and self-redemption.
But it can also present challenges. Will they be able to find a homeless shelter that accepts animals? What will they do with their pet when they need to go to work, or to a job interview? Will they be able to afford food and medical care for their companion?
A collaboration between faculty and students in social work and veterinary medicine at Colorado State University has blossomed into a weekly session where people experiencing homelessness receive free health care for their pets — and themselves.
It’s a partnership with the Street Dog Coalition, an organization started in 2015 by a CSU-trained veterinarian that has a mission of “caring for the lives on both ends of the leash.” It’s now operating in about 40 cities around the country, including Fort Collins.
Every Tuesday afternoon, Street Dog founder Dr. Jon Geller meets a CSU team at the Murphy Center for Hope in north Fort Collins to offer the free care. Students in the Community Practice program at the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences get hands-on experience working with animals outside of a clinical setting, while students from the School of Social Work gain skills providing assistance and resources to the pet owner.
And now medical students at the new CSU branch of the University of Colorado School of Medicine are getting involved to provide even more human health care.
This Inclusive Health Collaborative is a classic example of the One Health model: finding optimal health outcomes that recognize the interconnection among people, animals, plants and their shared environment.
“It’s framed around the pet being the entry point, and then working with the owners from there,” explained IHC Program Coordinator Fred Palmer, who is working on a dual master’s degree in public health and social work at CSU. “They see their animals getting all this great care, and they ask, ‘Where can I go to get myself checked out?’”
“A lot of people experiencing homelessness will avoid doctors,” Geller said, “and this maybe provides an opportunity for us to say, ‘Hey, can we take your blood pressure too, while we’re at it?’”
Origins of the collaboration
Paula Yuma, an assistant professor of social work, said the idea for the collaboration grew out of the One Health Institute, where faculty and researchers come together from across CSU to discuss interdisciplinary approaches. At an OHI meeting, she talked with members from the vet med college about a person who died that winter from exposure to the elements while living outdoors, and how difficult it can be to find shelter when one has an animal companion.
Like so many things, the project was suspended for a few months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was revived in July, buoyed by a pilot research grant awarded through HABIC –Human-Animal Bond in Colorado – part of the School of Social Work.
“This is about providing care to people and pets at the same time,” Yuma said. “And Fred was really the perfect person to start this project, because he’s worked with people experiencing homelessness for a long time, and he’s an emergency medical technician. He is known by much of this community already.”
Palmer noted that as many as 20% of people who are experiencing homelessness own pets, and often put their animals’ needs above their own.
“They’d much rather buy a meal for their dog than themselves,” he said. “But a good reason to take care of yourself is to be there for your dog or cat.”
“They are so bonded; these pets are so loved,” added Janelle Scott, who has been actively involved in the effort, along with fellow vet med faculty members Danielle Frey and Dr. Rebecca Ruch-Gallie and veterinary technician Meghan Schmidt. “You can tell these owners love their pets and are willing to put their own health at risk for their pet in some cases.”
“The human-animal bond, for people who are homeless, is really important,” Ruch-Gallie said. “Having interaction with something warm and fuzzy, and having that unconditional love, can be crucial.”
Gratitude for the services
The response from the clientele has been positive.
“The clients say they enjoy the opportunity to interact with our students, and the students feel the same way,” Scott said. “They love working with this population, in part because they are so thankful.”
The clients are happy to share their gratitude.
“These people are incredible,” said Nancy Armeli, who has two dogs and moved to Fort Collins from the San Francisco area in summer 2019. “They love animals, and you can tell.”
“They are my lifesaver,” added Tracy Knott, who had to stop working due to illness and couldn’t afford veterinary care for her cat Mohawk.
Sarah Deluty and Isabella Mazariegos, both in their third year of CSU’s Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program, have been working at the clinic as part of their rotations.
“I certainly have had my eyes opened to how much can be accomplished in a street clinic setting, so that’s been really encouraging, since that’s something I would like to do in the future,” Deluty said. “I’ve really learned how to develop a relationship with a stranger through their pet. That’s what I’m hoping to get out of vet med, to meet my community and support my community.”
Mazariegos agreed, saying that working with Geller has been a highlight of her veterinary education.
“The communication with clients has been the most rewarding part for me,” she said. “It’s a population that usually gets overlooked, by not only veterinarians but professionals in general, because they can’t always afford treatments. They are so grateful to receive these services. It has completely changed my way of seeing the human-animal bond. Everyone deserves to have that, no matter what their financial status is.”
Last summer, both students completed research projects dealing with homelessness and pets.
“In my research, I found that people who have pets while experiencing homelessness are way less likely to experience suicidal ideation or risky behaviors,” Deluty explained. “If you want to look at it from a public health standpoint, there are benefits. If having a dog makes you happy, I want to make sure your dog is healthy.”
“I realized how hard it is for these individuals to get certain services,” Mazariegos added. “I just had not thought about it, because I’m privileged enough to not have to think about it. Now I’m even more passionate about finding ways to make those services available to everyone. Having a pet should not be a barrier to basic needs.”
Palmer has conducted interviews with many of the clients, and one big need he identified was a “doggie day care” where people could leave their pets when necessary. Thanks to funding from the Homeward Alliance, he said, now that service is available near the Murphy Center, at the Canine Learning Center.
“If you don’t have a place to leave your dog during the day, you can’t get a job,” Deluty said. “But I don’t think that asking people to leave what genuinely could be the biggest piece of joy in their life is a sustainable choice either.”
An improved learning experience
Scott said the project has enriched her students’ education immensely.
“When our students go to the clinic, they get to see how to offer care for these patients using only the resources they have with them,” Scott said. “So they get to do a lot more critical thinking there, and we want them to stretch those skills. We try to let the students be the doctor, but we’re there to supervise and help them.”
The interaction between the students from different fields has also been valuable.
“We try to go in all directions, so that the vet med and social work students are aware of what the other side is doing,” Palmer said.
Now, CU School of Medicine third-year medical students Frankie Jeney and Eli Finer are getting involved as the new medical branch gets up and running in Fort Collins.
“Other One Health clinics around the country have seen preliminary results showing that pet owners who come to get help for their animals are more open to care for themselves,” said Finer, who earned his bachelor’s degree in nutrition and food science from CSU. “The clients at the Murphy Center have shown an interest in having this resource as well.”
“We’re trying to get the ball rolling on something that can be carried on well into the future,” Jeney said, adding that learning about animal health is not common for medical students. “What I hope to gain is an understanding of how multidisciplinary teams can address health for both pets and humans. Seeing the commonalities between human and animal health, and addressing those issues, is something I’m excited about. When you add in social work, it’s a unique opportunity to have a system in place to address people from all levels.”
Dr. Anuja Riles, director of health and society for the new CU branch at CSU, agreed.
“One of our missions at the new medical campus is to create physician leaders that can work in transdisciplinary teams to solve local, regional, national, and global problems,” she said. “This effort is a great example of how these collaborative skills can be fostered in our students with the goal of achieving optimal health outcomes for all.”