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Caring for the homeless and their four-legged friends

Ramon Johnson
Ramon Johnson with his dog Navarro


This story originally aired in October of 2016. 


An effort to keep homeless people safe in Santa Clara County has gone to the dogs. And the occasional cat.

A San Jose shelter now opens its doors to pets, and hosts a free veterinary clinic the last Saturday of each month. The clinic is a partnership with the city’s Animal Care Center.

At one recent clinic, Jeb Banks’s fawn-colored pitbull Raggsie shook his head after a good dose of ear medicine. He was one of more than 50 pets of the homeless receiving care during the second-ever free clinic at HomeFirst Shelter.

Banks made the trek from Oakland just to be here.

“It’s a ways away, but I wanted him to get his shots,” Banks says, stroking the dog’s velvety ears.

A mission for change

The vet clinic is held in what was once the back patio of the shelter. Today the outdoor space is a kennel with fake grass and five-foot-tall dog crates donated by The Home Depot.


Converting the space to a kennel and offering the clinic helps the shelter better serve its clients, says HomeFirst Chief Development Officer Stephanie Demos. It means that homeless people don’t have to abandon their dogs to have a meal, see a social worker, or use the shower. More than 60 people died on the streets in Santa Clara County last year. Lowering any barriers to getting them help can save lives.

“So this is a real rescue effort,” Demos says, “to make sure that the animals who are sometimes their only family are kept safe, too.”

Mutual dependency

Ramon Johnson knows how much pets can mean when you are homeless. He and his dog Navarro spent last year on the streets in San Jose.

“Keeping him safe and healthy gave me motivation to not give up and give in. It would have been so easy to do or to succumb to drugs and alcohol to blot out the pain,” Johnson says. “I had to stay grounded, and I had to stay focused, because Navarro deserved better.”

Johnson and Navarro landed a place to stay — but things are still tough. Free vet care is a huge help.

That’s just what Stanford student Andy Meislin hoped. She helped set up the clinic at the shelter through a Stanford fellowship.

For the first clinic, she brought lots of veterinary supplies from the San Jose Animal Care Center. But pet supplies, like beds and collars, were also in demand.

“One thing I did notice, when we got down to the last dog bed or the last crate of food, was that people didn’t want to take the last of something,” she says. “I think it was this mentality of, ‘If someone needs it more than I do, I want them to have it.’”

The clinic is about more than giving dogs a soft place to sleep though. It’s also huge for public health.

“All of these dogs are outside a lot of the time or in these encampments, so just from a public health perspective it is important to have everyone in a community vaccinated,” Meislin says.

Helping people help themselves

Mr. and Mrs. Soto don’t want to share their first names; they live on the streets near SAP Center. For them, keeping their dog healthy is as important as keeping their family healthy. After all, Reese the Chihuahua is family.

“We are exceptionally close to her because of our living situation right now,” says Mrs. Soto. “She serves not only as a loving companion but also as a guard dog. We know when someone is around and what-not.”

It’s the same way for many others. Their pets are more than just animals.

And when addressing homelessness, taking care of people also means providing for their companions.


The next "Vets for Healthy Pets" Clinic will be on Sunday October 22, 2017 from 10am-1pm at the HomeFirst Shelter at 2011 Little Orchard St. in San Jose.

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