San Francisco has long struggled to find a solution to the throngs of panhandlers peddling for food and cash on its streets.
And even though the City by the Bay enjoys a storied reputation as a dog-lovers haven, the recession has skyrocketed the number of canines without homes — last year to the tune of 500 extra dogs brought in to S.F.'s Animal Care and Control, a facility with room for only 120 canines at a time.
Now a government-backed program will try a two-for-one solution to make a dent in these seemingly disparate problems.
WOOF, Wonderful Opportunities for Occupants and Fidos, will pair residents in supportive housing who agree not to panhandle with adolescent puppies in need of socialization in order to be permanently adopted. The approach is believed to be unlike any other currently being tried and was the brainchild of Rebecca Katz, the city's director of Animal Care and Control, and Bevan Dufty, the newly-appointed director of Housing Opportunities, Partnerships and Engagement.
"We think it will be absolutely magic to give these individuals and these dogs a second chance together," says Dufty, Mayor Ed Lee's point person on homelessness. "For the WOOFers it provides them a sense of purpose and dignity like no other."
Thanks to a $10,000 private donation, the program also provides participants weekly payments for fostering the puppies along with training in both animal care and job skills.
Katz says the individual payment amounts are still being worked out but that they'll likely fall between $50 and $75 per week.
"This comes out to close to what they'd be bringing in panhandling," she says, so that WOOF becomes a viable alternative to begging for cash.
More substantially, Katz hopes caring for animals will have other lasting benefits for participants. They'll make more social connections while walking their temporary pets, becoming part of something bigger than themselves, she says.
Initially, when WOOF launches in August, there will be a two-week to two-month pilot period with just 10 canine caregivers. Once the kinks have been worked out the program would theoretically keep expanding and evolving. Katz and Dufty are still narrowing down the first class of WOOFers. For those not able to join right away, the plan is to line them up with shifts at Animal Care and Control.
The out-of-the-box project has not been without controversy. When officials unveiled WOOF last month, a host of San Franciscans immediately feared for the puppies' safety. In a city where dogs outnumber children and residents tend to take better care of their pets than themselves, it wasn't entirely a shock.
"The program was portrayed almost like we were going to drive by people on the street and hand them puppies out of a truck," she said. "But we have safeguards in place."
For one, Dufty and Katz are working with social agencies to promote the program and identify worthy candidates. The first batch of WOOFers will be individuals already a part of the city's Community Housing Partnership, which means they've been screened to ensure they're not violent and are mentally up to the job. CHP's supportive housing units are also accessible 24/7 by staff who could check in on any potential dangers for the dogs. That's on top of frequent checks on WOOF puppies, according to Dufty.
Cities' approaches to curbing homeless residents from panhandling have generally been the polar opposite of WOOF, increasing no-panhandling zones or upping public service campaigns teaching city-goers not to give to panhandlers.
Dufty is no fan of criminalizing panhandling and prefers offering alternatives to those on the street. It's unknown how many people panhandle in San Francisco. But in certain areas, like the Tenderloin, the practice is particularly rampant and aggravating enough to citizens that they ranked panhandling their number one concern in a March poll by the Chamber of Commerce [PDF].
Katz and Dufty don't expect WOOF to eradicate panhandling in San Francisco.
"But for some of the population this might work," she says. "We want to create something that is a boilerplate model for the rest of the country."