To kick off last week’s veterinary clinic in Ballard, Dr. Hanna Ekström gathered her staff and volunteers for a group huddle.
“OK, trying to herd some cats,” said Ekström, founder and executive director of Seattle Veterinary Outreach, as she paced around the parking lot.
She would know.
Since launching her nonprofit in 2019, Ekström has provided veterinary care to more than 1,000 pets belonging to homeless and low-income people in Seattle — and her practice is rapidly growing.
Last fall, Seattle Veterinary Outreach received a three-year grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, totaling close to $500,000. The grant, along with financial support from the Jacobi Family Foundation, has allowed the organization to expand its services and its staff to now offer human health services alongside animal care.
The organization offers mobile pet clinics two times a week. And with an increased staff — including a social worker, part-time physician, part-time nurse and a staff member who is currently homeless — it’s able to send out a mobile team to help people and pets living in RVs and tent encampments.
Seattle Veterinary Outreach is one of the few organizations in the region offering free veterinary services and supplies to homeless people. Through its two-pronged approach, Ekström hopes it can encourage pet owners to take better care of themselves, and, through its free pet care, take one less worry off a pet owner’s plate.
‘I rescued him … he rescued me’
Brian Harris waited two hours outside the Ballard Food Bank last week with his brown-and-gray toy poodle, Jack, for the mobile vet clinic to open.
He’d raised dogs when he was younger, said Harris, who’s now 62. He owned big, strong dogs like German shepherds. But when he saw Jack’s bony, shivering frame poking out of a man’s coat in downtown Seattle about three months ago, he knew he couldn’t walk away.
“I said, ‘Man, give me that dog. You don’t know how to take care of that dog,’” Harris said.
He paid the man, slid Jack into his jacket and took him home to get warm.
A veterinarian volunteering at the Ballard clinic guessed that Jack is 10 years old, at least. Harris hopes he’s got 10 more good years in him.
“I rescued him,” Harris said. But, “He don’t know how much he rescued me.”
Harris can’t afford to take Jack to a typical vet clinic. He lives on a fixed income in supportive housing provided through the Downtown Emergency Services Center, one of King County’s largest homeless-service providers.
But Harris gives Jack what he can. He makes food for the little dog, using a potato masher to break down cooked carrots, potatoes, green beans and chicken, as most of Jack’s teeth are rotten or gone.
“We talking about Jack, but I’m kind of messed up, too,” he said. Harris has survived serious car accidents and needs a wheelchair most of the time to get around.
“I get stressed out,” he said. “And when I get like that, I pick Jack up and rub on his head and talk to him. He got the look to make you melt.”
Last week, during Jack’s second visit with Seattle Veterinary Outreach, a vet and two assistants sent Harris home with free supplements to help Jack’s joints and a steroid to clear up what they think is an eye infection or allergies. He got two months of flea medication, dog food in the form of broth so Jack can easily eat it and a trim to take off matted clumps of hair.
Harris also got reassurances and validation.
“He’s gained weight since the last time we saw him,” Izzy Kominski, a vet assistant with the organization, told Harris after completing Jack’s exam. “You’re doing a great job taking care of him,” she added. “He’s clearly very happy with you.”
“Meet people where they are”
Ekström founded the nonprofit after a 25-year-plus veterinary career, starting with just her and four volunteers, she said. Now, she has 12 paid staff members, three of whom are full-time, and many more volunteers.
In 2019, the organization’s first full year of operation, she set up 12 clinics in Seattle and helped 24 animals, Ekström said.
Last year, working throughout most of the pandemic, her team saw around 200 pets during about 20 clinics, she said. So far this year, they’ve helped close to 1,000 pets. Ekström estimates they’ll see 2,000 by the end of the year.
They now hold around eight clinics per month, setting up outside of homeless-service providers throughout Seattle on a rotating basis.
At the Ballard clinic last week, two teams of veterinarians and assistants saw a variety of cases. They treated a double ear infection, provided medications for an 18-year-old Shih Tzu and examined a dog in a client’s car that was unable to walk due to allergy-induced foot lacerations.
At every clinic, Scott Beck, a social worker, helps connect pet owners with resources. Since he started in March, Beck has made more than 400 referrals to social-service programs in the region, Ekström said.
“There are so many stigmas about people who are experiencing homelessness and if they should have the responsibility of having a pet,” Beck said. “And I can tell by far in my life experience and my professional experience, they are the best pet owners there are.”
Many of Seattle Veterinary Outreach’s clients will use their last dollars or whatever free food they acquire to meet for their pets’ needs over their own, according to staff members and volunteers with the organization.
Living homeless or on a low income can make everyday tasks, like getting a pet spayed, stressful, said Kominski, the vet assistant.
“I think it helps,” Kominski said, “knowing there are organizations like us out there who will take care of them if they need it.”
After receiving the Robert Wood Johnson grant, Seattle Veterinary Outreach launched the Mobile Health Outreach team. The team conducts street outreach every Friday, rain or shine.
“We go out as a team, and we meet people where they are,” said Dr. Cathrine Wheeler, medical director for the program.
Wheeler said that, so far, they’re seeing high demand for wound care and harm-reduction supplies for drug users. In more serious cases, team members connect people with emergency care or a primary care provider.
In the last six months or so, Ekström said, Seattle Veterinary Outreach has partnered with Public Health – Seattle & King County’s mobile medical van to offer two clinics at once.
“It’s difficult because no one person can fill all the needs, but I see our outreach as one door that people can walk through to access other services,” Ekström said.