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Puppies paired with panhandlers in S.F. to curb homelessness

June 14, 2012 |  9:39 am

Puppy panhandlers
A new program in San Francisco will pair carefully selected dogs from shelters with panhandlers in an effort to steer the latter away from asking for money on the streets and keep the animals from being euthanized.

The temporary guardians (the words "pet" and "owner" are frowned upon in San Francisco) will receive weekly stipends of $50 to $75 and must agree to jettison their cardboard signs in the pilot project believed to be the first of its kind in the country.

The program, scheduled to start in August, is called WOOF, short for Wonderful Opportunities for Occupants and Fidos. The animals will eventually be placed in permanent homes.

"I can't make panhandling go away," said Bevan Dufty, one of the plan's architects. "But I can make a better offer."

Dufty is San Francisco's director of HOPE — Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement. A former county supervisor, he proposed that the city hire life coaches for its transit drivers when he ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2011.

His latest plan addresses two serious problems in a dog-loving city that prides itself on creativity and heart. In a tourism bureau survey released last year, 25% of visitors polled said their biggest complaint about the city was encountering the homeless people and panhandlers — eclipsing responses about the weather and traffic.

And since the nation's economic recession began, said Rebecca Katz, director of Animal Care and Control, the city-run shelter has seen a significant jump in abandoned dogs.

The facility took in 2,424 dogs last year, compared with 1,939 in the 2008 fiscal year, Katz said.

"We find ourselves euthanizing dogs that in the past might have gone to rescue," said Katz, who created the plan with Dufty. "We give them a lot more time than any other shelter I know of in the state or country. Still, there comes a limit."

Three kinds of dogs, Katz said, will be targeted for the effort: fearful ones that need more socialization time than shelter staff and volunteers can give them; "rowdy" ones that need to learn basic manners,  and puppies that cannot be adopted until they are old enough to spay or neuter.

No dogs with a history of fighting or aggression can take part. As for the temporary guardians, no one with severe mental illness or a history of violence can participate, Katz said, and "no drug or alcohol addiction, unless they're in treatment."

Anyone using the foster dog as a panhandling prop will be ejected from the program. The final requirement is that the dog caretakers must have a place to live, which is where Community Housing Partnership comes in.

The organization develops and operates permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless people and has 1,000 units throughout the city.

Chief executive Gail Gilman said her housing organization will partner with Animal Care and Control in the pilot effort. Residents who have completed a job readiness program will be eligible. Learning to care for animals, Gilman said, will give clients marketable skills — and more.

"This has a huge potential to be a pathway for many individuals to learn some skills and supplement their income in a more positive, productive way," Gilman said. "And we know that caring for animals is incredible for individuals who have been isolated and disenfranchised from society."

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-- Maria L. LaGanga in San Francisco

Photo: Matt Traywick in the hallway with Charlie, his dog, after going for a walk in San Francisco on Tuesday. Credit: Liz Hafalia / San Francisco Chronicle

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