San Antonio nonprofit organization provides veterinary care for the homeless’ pets


Sandra Harp sits on the sidewalk on Chestnut Street in downtown San Antonio, holding her chihuahua’s head in her hands and curling his ears. Half of its small tan body is tucked into a doggie bag, the other half sticking out, sniffing the air and growling at strangers. When he barks at a passerby, Harp snorts. Your dog thinks he’s a big, tough guy.

For Harp and other people affected by homelessness, Chestnut Street is a common gathering place. This weekend, Harp is one of many who line the sidewalks and driveways with their dogs — all waiting for Communities Under the Bridge, a ministry that provides services to the homeless, to open. For the next two hours, Hope 4 Hounds — a San Antonio nonprofit that provides veterinary care — will set up a shop behind the ministry and anyone who needs a screening, vaccinations, microchipping or care for their dog can show up.

For the homeless in San Antonio, a dog can be a best friend, a protector, a comfort, and a responsibility. They are a constant in a life that is often fraught with instability and can be a reminder of love and devotion even in the loneliest of moments. However, veterinary care can be a challenge, as free or low-cost veterinary clinics can be hard to find and most homeless shelters don’t allow dogs.

With the help of several homeless service partners, Hope 4 Hounds hosts free veterinary clinics downtown every three months. Services include everything from rabies vaccinations to heartworm medication to bandaging an injured paw.

This time the schedule includes 17 people with 22 dogs. Harp is there for her dog Bandit, a 10-year-old Chihuahua who was attacked by a larger dog earlier this year.

Harp, 46, knew Bandit before they hit the streets together. He’d been raised with other Chihuahuas in a house east of downtown with a woman Harp was friends with. When that person died, most of the dogs went to Animal Care Services, but Harp claimed Bandit for himself. While he was nervous and anxious around others, he was calm and snuggled with her, she said.

When Harp saw that the larger dog’s bite had left a hole in Bandit’s stomach, she had to make a difficult decision. Should she call the sick and injured line at Animal Care Services, which would mean giving Bandit to the city, or keeping him – an option that would most likely kill him.

She called.

“Once you own a dog like Bandit, you can’t just think about yourself,” Harp said. “You have an animal that depends on you, loves you, trusts you. You have to please them.”

“Cared for and Loved”

Hope 4 Hounds was founded by Jill and Ross Powell. They previously volunteered at an organization called Canines for Christ, which worked with the homeless community by taking therapy dogs to the streets. The Powells recognized that homeless people with pets had little access to veterinary care, and that led them to start their nonprofit organization.

They knew a vet who was interested in volunteering and some members of the homeless community with puppies.

First, they worked out of their Suburban in the parking lot of the San Antonio Zoo.

Since then, the nonprofit organization has grown to include more vets, clients and a location at Communities Under the Bridge every three months. They have eight members on their board – who all visit the veterinary clinics – and about 20 volunteers. They are also connected to the homeless shelters and day centers in the community when there is a canine emergency and to publicize their services.

The organization is financed by donations and accepts gifts of money on its website. It also has an Amazon Wishlist that includes syringes, portable fans, and liver-flavored dog treats.

“The misconception is that people in the homeless community don’t care about themselves or others, but the truth is these dogs that they bring are so cared for and loved,” said Jill Powell, 53. “I have dogs in seen those living in owner-occupied houses in much worse condition.”

The Powells are known on the street. Homeless people with dogs often reach out to them through social media posts or calls or texts when their dog needs help. They speak to their clients weekly, if not daily. Late last year, a homeless man’s dog was hit by a car and lost its hind legs. At a December clinic, Powell said they taught the owner how to care for the dog and help it recover. A few weeks later the dog was walking around, only slightly lame in the hind legs.

Hope 4 Hounds also helped Harp reunite with Bandit after he was injured and turned over to the town. SNIPSA, an organization dedicated to helping homeless dogs, adopted Bandit from ACS and traced his microchip to Hope 4 Hounds. They contacted Jill Powell and in January Harp and Bandit were reunited.

In addition to Hope 4 Hounds, the city has a spay and neuter clinic near Brackenridge Park that offers low-cost or free veterinary services. Residents can also be treated at the San Antonio Wellness Spay and Neuter Clinic and SNIPSA, where dogs are rescued, rehabilitated and housed.

There are nearly 35,000 unbridled dogs in San Antonio. According to a 2019 ACS study, an estimated 96 percent of these are owned by someone and 4 percent are strays. At any one time there are 200 to 300 dogs at ACS.

It is estimated that nearly 3,000 people were left homeless in San Antonio last year. While the exact number of homeless dog owners is unclear, the Powells estimated it at 10 to 20 percent of the homeless population, depending on the time of year.

“We really haven’t had any issues with homeless people and their dogs in San Antonio,” said Shannon Sims, director of ACS. “It doesn’t make sense to me when people say they shouldn’t have pets. They are true companions… I know some of them would feed their dog before they feed themselves.”

Most local homeless shelters do not accept overnight dogs. Haven for Hope, an animal shelter on the west side, has a kennel for dogs, but the place is usually full and some homeless people are reluctant to leave their dog alone. Other organizations, like Communities Under the Bridge, open shelters when it’s below freezing outside. In these cases, the non-profit organization allows a few non-aggressive dogs.

It was below freezing when Harp and Bandit were reunited, but the Communities Under the Bridge shelter couldn’t take any more dogs, so Harp stayed out with Bandit all night. She didn’t want to risk him being kidnapped or running away.

companion for life

Some pet owners in the homeless community say the responsibility of having a dog holds them accountable. When Harp found out Bandit was fine, she said she stayed sober for weeks so she could take better care of him.

Crystal Gordon, a 38-year-old homeless woman from Houston, said her Yorkie schnauzer, Bella, keeps her from feeling lonely. Gordon, who is disabled with a bone problem, uses a wheelchair on the street – a task that can be tiring. Bella snuggles on her lap most days for Gordon to give her a squeeze when she’s feeling down.

Bradley Troutman said his dog Lola helps with his PTSD. The 45-year-old experiences severe anxiety and stress and said he could feel overwhelmed on the streets of San Antonio. Lola helps him calm down.

Troutman is new to San Antonio, having moved to the city from Louisiana. He lost his job during the pandemic and struggled to make ends meet afterward, so figured he’d see if he could make it in Texas. He lost his first dog – also called Lola – when she disappeared from the street one day.

He found his now Lola, a 6 month old golden Labrador mix, wandering the streets alone and without tags, so he picked her up, fed her and they have been bonded ever since. When she started pooping blood, he got emergency medicine for hookworm from his case worker at Christian Assistance Ministry, another downtown charity.

“It’s most cities, we’re just this herd of people being moved around,” Troutman said. “The only constants are the blisters on our feet and dogs like Lola.”

Troutman brought Lola to the last Hounds 4 Hope to be checked out.

Two veterinarians were present at the clinic meeting: Lisa Montoya Espina, who also serves on the Hope 4 Hounds board of directors, and Jana Grant, a volunteer at the Animal Hospital of Smithson Valley in Spring Branch.

At the end of the visit, each customer receives a bag of dog treats, including food, treats, a new leash and collar, a squeaky toy, and three months’ medicine. The next clinic is scheduled for June 4th at the same location and all customers are being urged to return with their dogs for further medication and a check-up.

Grant listens intently as Troutman explains Lola’s condition. She notes that the dog is doing better and looks healthy.

“Keep doing what you’re doing,” she said. “She will be fine.”

Elena Bruess writes for Express-News on Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.

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