Veterinary care and healthcare are two essential components of wellness that can sometimes be difficult for people to obtain due to a lack of access and funds to pay for services.
A strong sense of empathy and relentless drive to assist these vulnerable populations in the Seattle area is directly reflected in the work of Seattle Veterinary Outreach. SVO envisions a future with more equity and opportunity for vulnerable pets and their people.
The SVO program is a combination mobile veterinary and medical clinic that gives people the opportunity to maintain and tend to the health of their pets as well as themselves.
“I know that there’s a huge stigma of ‘you can’t even take care of yourself, how can you take care of an animal’ type of thing. That has never been the case that I have found,” said Rebecca Marriott, vendor program manager at Real Change. “For folks who are experiencing homelessness, the bond they have with their animals can often be the closest bond that they have.”
SVO Executive Director Dr. Hanna Ekstrom said, “We feel that by working to support both pets and their people that we will be able to have a positive impact not just on the pet’s health but also on the community’s health.”
With the submission of a video that highlights the impact of the Seattle Veterinary Outreach program, the organization received a Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars grant of $500,000. This grant allowed for the acquisition of additional employees to accommodate the growing need for medical and veterinary services in the Seattle area.
Ekstrom said the grant’s purpose is to bring together multidisciplinary teams, just like the team at SVO. The application process involved multiple papers and budgets as well as the video submission, but lo and behold, they got it.
“It is a project that’s founded on three pillars. The first pillar is pets, and the second pillar is people, and the third pillar is love, but it is also public health,” Ekstrom said. “By pulling together the veterinary and the human outreach, we are essentially trying to provide it in multiple different formats so people can access whatever they’re most comfortable with and most able to do.”
SVO also collaborates with the Homeless Organizing Community of SODO, which has allowed them to reach out to community members facing homelessness who are well versed and comfortable with the volunteers of the HOC of SODO.
“We decided to launch our January outreach as the human medical and veterinary medical teams together with HOC SODO,” Ekstrom said. “Their volunteers are walking with us side by side as we go up into encampments so there’s already an underlying level of trust, and then they are able to help introduce us so we can start providing services.”
It is this sense of trust and humanity created by outreach volunteers that is vital for provoking a sense of courage within campers to be seen and treated by SVO without apprehension or fear.
“People are pretty guarded in these camps,” said Tisha Abrahamsen, a HOC of SODO volunteer. “We’re trying hard to lift people up a bit. We’re building relationships to engage in future projects so that people are participating in upgrading their lifestyle to what they want, not what we think they should have.”
The compartmentalized yet joinable services of SVO are unique and conceived in these flexible frameworks to optimize access and avert stigmas for people and animals to get the vital care they need, Ekstrom said.
Marriott said that when it comes to Seattle Veterinary Outreach, this thoughtful approach is necessary because negative perceptions are often projected toward those who are receiving services.
“I’ve found that when people have the option of keeping their animals healthy, they would do it over keeping themselves healthy,” Marriott said. “It’s a loving relationship that is very rare for some folks to be able to find on the streets.”
SVO breaks all the barriers people may face when it comes to accessing healthcare. They make it convenient, comfortable and attainable for those who seek assistance.
“Barriers to care can be physical: They may not be able to get there; they may not have transportation,” Ekstrom said. “They also can be emotional. If they feel traumatized, they don’t want to go in because they’ve had a previous bad experience, or they feel looked down upon or stigmatized.”
SVO’s mission is to provide compassionate mobile veterinary care so homeless people and their pets can thrive together.
“We are no-barrier care, essentially. It’s mobile — it’s right there at their houses, so it’s easier for them to deal with. It is my hope that it will help those who need it,” Ekstrom said.
As the need for medical attention grows, so do the resources and efforts of the SVO program.
“They went from a little ambulance and a little tent to two huge tents. I mean, the services that they provide just continue to increase,” Marriott said.
The devotion to holistic care as well as a keen focus on health and wellness on both ends of the leash are key factors that have developed the program into what it is today.
“Because it’s the same folks in the same places, there is a continuum of care for these animals. They remember why they were there the last time, and they check on them and know them by their names,” Marriott said. “It’s the holistic care that makes people feel good and makes them want to continue in that relationship.”
Read more in the Mar. 3-9, 2021 issue.