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San Francisco to pair panhandlers with shelter dogs

SAN FRANCISCO – When it comes to tackling San Francisco’s entrenched panhandling problem, City Hall has tried just about everything: laws banning aggressive panhandling and sitting on sidewalks, teams of service providers who attempt to get beggars off the streets, and an employment program to get them hired at nearby businesses.

But it’s never tried puppies – until now.

Starting Aug. 1, the city – in a program believed to be the first of its kind in the country – will attempt to lure panhandlers to give up their cardboard signs and metal cups in exchange for a small stipend to foster problematic puppies at the city’s Animal Care and Control, making them ready for adoption.

Bevan Dufty, Mayor Ed Lee’s point person on homelessness, is calling his new program Wonderful Opportunities for Occupants and Fidos, or WOOF.

“I’m tired of pushing people around. You can make it difficult for people to panhandle, but ultimately they’re just going to go do it somewhere else,” he said. “Why not try to meet their needs for income in a way that helps the city and its animals?”

Dufty points to Matt Traywick and his best friend, a 4-year-old bichon mix named Charlie, as an ideal pairing.

Eighteen months ago, Traywick was living in the Empress Hotel, a supportive housing complex in the Tenderloin. He struggled with severe depression and isolation after leaving the streets.

“You have no phone, and there’s nobody knocking on your door,” said Traywick, 52. “It’s not as happy an experience as you’d think it might be.”

A friend finally dragged him to the Animal Care and Control shelter, where he fell in love with Charlie, who was so skinny you could count his ribs and whose fur was so matted it had to be shaved off. Traywick adopted Charlie, and now the two venture out for walks eight or nine times a day.

Charlie is now well fed, sports fluffy white fur, and easily bounds up the six steep flights of stairs to his owner’s hotel room. Traywick, too, is healthier and happier.

“I never go to bed by myself, and I never wake up by myself,” he said. “It makes me walk with my head a little higher.”

Animal Care and Control will screen applicants to ensure they’re a good fit for WOOF. They must be living in supportive housing and not on the streets; the city has anecdotal evidence to suggest the majority of panhandlers are housed, but supplement their income through begging or just don’t have anything else to occupy their time.

The applicants must also show they’re not severely mentally ill, aren’t hoarders, don’t have a history of violence, and are seeking treatment if they have addictions. They also must pledge to forswear panhandling, and if they’re caught begging with the puppy, the animal will be taken back to the shelter.

In exchange, they’ll receive $50 to $75 a week, several training sessions provided by an animal behavior specialist at Animal Care and Control as well as regular check-ins by that person, and all the dog food, toys, leashes and veterinary care they need.

Rebecca Katz, director of Animal Care and Control, said the program will help the city’s shelter cope with its huge influx of dogs caused by the economic downturn. The shelter is receiving 500 more dogs per year than it did before the recession struck because owners can no longer afford their pets.

But about 15 percent of dogs are deemed not adoptable because they’re not socialized and are rowdy, hyper or too shy to interact with humans – and those dogs are eventually euthanized.

Katz hopes more of them can be made adoptable by being fostered in the WOOF program. She said the formerly homeless people living in supportive housing could be ideal foster guardians because they can spend the entire day with the puppy. The Woof participants could opt to adopt the animal at the end of two to six weeks or return the animal to the shelter and foster another one.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.