At a charity-sponsored lunch for homeless people on Christmas of 2016, Dr. Nan Rosenberry set up her lawn chair, a cooler filled with medications and vaccines, and a sign offering free veterinary care to homeless people with pets. Just like that, the first Florida branch of the nonprofit Street Dog Coalition began.
Founded in 2015 in Fort Collins, Colorado, by veterinarian Jon Geller, the all-volunteer Street Dog Coalition has spread to more than 10 states. Rosenberry, a veterinarian since 1999 at Bay Road Animal Hospital in Sarasota, saw an article about Geller and his growing movement in a veterinary magazine and contacted him.
“I’ve always done a lot of work with Animal Rescue Coalition, the Humane Society, Sarasota Animal Services,” says Rosenberry. “But they can’t really service the homeless people because they have to get to their facilities, and there are fees, even though they’re on a sliding scale. I said to my husband, ‘We’ve got to do something for these poor people who don’t have anything.’”
While pet ownership and homelessness seem incongruous, a 2014 survey of the homeless population in Sarasota County found that 20 percent have pets, says Wayne Applebee, the county’s director of homeless services. Often, pets act as an alarm system for someone sleeping on the street or in an alleyway, he says.
“When you don’t have a home, maybe the pet is the only companionship you have,” he adds. “It becomes a huge attachment.” (Between 5 and 10 percent of homeless people in the United States own pets, says Street Dog Coalition founder Geller; he surmises our mild winters account for the higher number here.)
Geller is impressed with how quickly the concept is spreading. “It’s pretty cool. I get contacts from multiple vets on a weekly basis asking, ‘What can I do to set this up in my city?’” he says. A vet in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia just joined, and so did one in Omaha, Nebraska.
Homeless people are devoted to their pets, says Rosenberry. “A lot of people tell me they’ll get food for their animals before they feed themselves," she says. That helps explain why the pets she treats are “not in too bad shape, believe it or not.”
Rosenberry estimates she’s taken care of nearly 80 dogs and a dozen cats—yes, homeless people have cats, too—at no cost since she started the Sarasota Street Dog Coalition. She treats heartworm and common skin conditions, administers vaccinations and conducts general exams. Her family and coworkers at Bay Road Animal Hospital assist her.
“Lots of people came up to me [at that first event] and said they’re afraid their dogs will be taken away,” says Rosenberry. “They’re kind of undercover. My goal is to be out and about and visible to the homeless population so they won’t be scared, and so I can give their pets the care they need.” Her next event is set for Easter in Bradenton.
She funds her efforts through a donation jar at her animal clinic, and through donations from drug manufacturers and vouchers supplied by Geller. And sometimes, even the homeless people she helps chip in. “They’re relieved and grateful,” she says. “I even had somebody give me $5.”
For information on how you can help the Sarasota Street Dog Coalition, call Dr. Nan Rosenberry at Bay Road Animal Hospital, (941) 366-2275.