How do you tackle overcrowded animal shelters and a panhandling problem? In San Francisco, they're hoping it's as simple as putting two and two together. A new initiative, called "Wonderful Opportunities for Occupants and Fidos," or "WOOF" naturally, is pairing would-be panhandlers with problem puppies in the hopes that both can lead more fulfilling lives.
The program will provide animal care training for formerly homeless people who otherwise would be on the streets soliciting money. Once they are paired with a carefully selected dog, they will be given a stipend between $50 to $75 a week to care for it. This, the city hopes, will discourage the new guardian from panhandling, and will provide a foster home for the dog until a permanent home can be found.
At first glance, the program may invite some doubt. What kind of screening process will make sure neither dog nor guardian is unsuitable? What about dangerous dogs, or people without housing? Rebecca Katz, the director of Animal Care and Control, says no dog with a history of aggression will be placed. Along the same lines, applicants with current substance abuse problems will be rejected.
Katz has teamed up with Bevan Dufty, the San Francisco director of HOPE (Housing Opportunity, Partnerships ad Engagement) and the Community Housing Partnership, to ensure each participant also has reliable housing. After all, the creators of the plan hope that the program will have long-term benefits, which include increased job-readiness, marketable skills, a permanent place to live, and the unique responsibility of caring for a pet.
"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," Gail Gilman, CEO of the Community Housing partnership, told the Los Angeles Times. "And we know that caring for animals is incredible for individuals who have been isolated and disenfranchised from society."
The plan is a very San Francisco solution to a very San Francisco problem. According to Dufty, the biggest complaint among visitors to the area is the number of panhandlers. Katz adds that animal shelters have been saturated in the past few years, and such a program cuts down on the overpopulation. WOOF rolls out in August, and while it may not solve every problem, the brains behind the plan say it's a step in the right direction.
"I can't make panhandling go away," says Dufty. "But I can make a better offer."