man standing outside the tent on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles clearly doesn’t live in the neighborhood. Tall and fit, he is dressed in jeans and a blue doctor’s shirt and carries a medical bag. The tent, one of many rough structures on the stained sidewalk, sits amidst piled up wooden pallets, old furniture and trash. But the man’s eyes are fixed on the dog lounging nearby.
“Hi how are you?” he says when the flap of the tent opens. “I’m a veterinarian, Dr Kwane Stewart, and I provide free pet care for homeless people.” He gestures to the dog. “Can I examine your pet?”
First comes the confused silence—who are you?— then suspicion: Is this animal control there to take my dog? Finally, a slow nod. Stewart, who calls himself the street vet, kneels down, takes out his stethoscope and gets to work.
These Skid Row streets are home to the nation’s largest concentration of homeless people not staying in a shelter, and at first glance it’s a landscape of unrelieved despair: mental illness, poverty, addiction. But love also exists, including the love of pets. Nationwide, 10-25% of homeless people have pets, and there’s no reason to think that number is lower in sunny Los Angeles. Cats sit on sleeping bags, pit bulls, scruffy terriers and pooches trotted alongside full shopping carts, and Chihuahuas rolled around in bicycle baskets and on the laps of people who were themselves in wheelchairs. rolling. Various local groups and volunteers help the owners of these animals to take care of them, with weekly and monthly clinics, mobile neutering and neutering vans, distributions of flea medicine and food.
Stewart, 50, has generally worked solo, walking the streets and searching for animals and people in need. “Maybe it’s because when I started this job, it wasn’t uncommon to find a pet that had never received care,” he says. “Everyone I met looked at me like I had just fallen from the sky.”
Stewart grew up with dogs, loved them and science, and by the age of 10 he knew he would become a veterinarian. It was an unusual ambition for a black track star in Albuquerque. Once a coach asked about his future plans and laughed in disbelief when Kwane told him. “I’ve never met a black veteran,” the coach said. Stewart continues: “At the time, I didn’t think much about it. But here’s the thing: he himself was Black. Decades later, the number of African American veterinarians is still so low that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported it might as well be zero.
Stewart graduated from the University of New Mexico, earned her DVM degree from Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and headed to San Diego. He spent a decade there dealing with a suburban clientele with “bottomless bank accounts”. Then, in 2008, he moved to Modesto in California’s Central Valley to work as a veterinarian in Stanislaus County. And everything changed.
The Great Recession leveled Modesto, a city of about 200,000 people, with plummeting house prices and a 17% unemployment rate. And when humans go bankrupt, animals often pay the price. Pet abandonments surged until the area’s aging shelter, built for 200 animals, held twice as many, and its euthanasia rate became one of the highest in the country.
“I was destroying 30 to 50 animals every morning,” Stewart says quietly. “Healthy dogs and cats. It was killing my soul. I felt like God was keeping score and I was losing. I didn’t go to school all these years to destroy animals. I wanted to help them and save them.
At first, that meant helping a homeless man he met almost daily by treating the man’s dog, who suffered from a bad allergy to flea bites. Then he organized a free clinic at a local soup kitchen. And then, in his spare time, he started wandering around Modesto and some Bay Area sites looking for pets to help him out. He moved to Los Angeles to take up the position of chief veterinarian for the American Humane Association, which ensures that animals are well cared for on film sets, and his ramblings shifted to San Diego and Los Angeles. He wore scrubs to identify himself, carried a bag full of medicine, vaccines and syringes, nail clippers, and he did what he could, for free.
He was amazed by what he found. Like many people, he wondered why the homeless had pets in the first place – if humans couldn’t take care of themselves, how could they be responsible for pets? And yet they were. In fact, numerous academic studies over the years have revealed the vital role pets play in the lives of homeless men and women – providing structure, purpose, meaning and love. “Researchers have consistently found very high levels of attachment to pets among homeless people,” sociologist Leslie Irvine writes in her 2012 book on the phenomenon, My dog always eats first.
Stewart agrees. “Pets were a lifeline for the people I met,” he says. “Most of them were excellent pet owners. They did remarkably well with the resources they had and made sacrifices for them far beyond what you or I would do. The bond between them was on a whole other level. They needed each other. »
For five years, his endeavors have been something of a secret hobby that he says even his family — he has three children — didn’t know existed. Then, in 2017, he and his brother, Ian, produced ‘The Street Vet’ as a reality series – it aired on TV in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe and in the US on a cable channel from Utah – and Stewart acknowledges that he is now a “media personality”. These days, he’s founding a new veterinary practice in San Diego and writing a book about his experiences on the streets.
Last September, he started a nonprofit, Project StreetVet, raising money on GoFundMe to cover the cost of treating pet medical issues beyond the scope of a sidewalk exam. He has occasionally volunteered with large organizations helping the homeless. Although he says “there are probably better ways to spend my time”, he likes to do it his own way.
“The wound is healing well,” he reassures a man named Ben, whose pet rat was attacked by a cat. (“I saw birds and snakes, but this was my first rat.”)
“The puppies look great,” he tells Julian, a tattooed man who has lived on the same sidewalk for two years and whose dog recently gave birth. (He also vaccinates puppies.)
Stewart marvels at the generosity of a young man named Reggie, who lives on a school bus and uses his own money to make lemonade which he gives to his neighbors. Stewart has the man’s dog, Daisy, vaccinated. “You’re doing a good job,” Stewart said.
“Oh, that’s such a blessing,” the young man replies.