On a crisp morning in West Sacramento, in a parking lot next to a boat ramp where fishermen unpacked their tackle boxes, Elizabeth Degen sat on the sidewalk and cradled a bundle of white fluff swaddled in a pink sweater.
“She’s my everything,” said Degen, who arrived with her tiny poodle, Mamas, and a cart stuffed with damp blankets, clothes and other belongings. “She gives me something to get up for in the morning.”
Later that day, just steps from where Degen sleeps along the river each night, Mamas and more than a dozen other pets whose owners are homeless or have very low incomes received free veterinary workups, treatment for ear mites and other minor ailments, vaccinations and identification chips.
The visits were part of a pilot program by the nonprofit Elica Health organization’s Wellness Without Walls operation, which sends medical experts toting backpacks into hidden places where homeless people congregate in an effort to connect them with health care and, ultimately, stable housing.
On any given night, about 2,600 people are homeless in the Sacramento area, according to organizations that track the issue.
As many as 25 percent of people who live outdoors have pets, studies suggest, and cost and transportation obstacles make it difficult for them to obtain regular veterinary care.
The Elica team tries to help with that care – and keep people and their pets together.
In some instances, homeless people choose to live outside rather than bunk in shelters or apartments that ban pets. Elica’s team is working to designate some of these pets as “emotional support animals,” which would make them eligible to accompany their owners into housing.
“Pets are an important part of the emotional health of these people,” said Dr. Matthew Gibson, a family medicine and psychiatry specialist and medical director for Wellness Without Walls. “In many instances, they will be starving themselves but make sure their animal is fed.”
In its first few months providing veterinary care, the Elica project has treated close to 200 animals suffering everything from ragged paws to eye wounds to flea bites. Veterinarian James Reynolds, recently retired from private practice, has even spayed and neutered dogs and cats on the spot from the back of his cranberry colored RV.
Ultimately, Elica hopes to acquire a van equipped to handle more complicated veterinary cases. For now, some of those animals are transported to the city’s Front Street Shelter. In addition to heading out with the Elica veterinary team about twice a week, Reynolds also works with the Sacramento Police Department’s IMPACT team, which is charged with monitoring homeless people in the region.
“These are God’s little creatures,” Reynolds said on a recent day, massaging the neck of a burly border collie mix, Ruby, after installing a microchip under her skin at a picnic table near the Broderick boat launch in West Sacramento. “They are loving companions to these people. They are their comfort, and their responsibility. They offer unconditional love. The bonds are very strong.”
Ruby’s owners, Diana Newman and Jeff Icanberry, confirmed that notion. “Animals are our family,” said Icanberry, “whether it’s a cat, a dog, even a mouse or a hamster. Would I trade Ruby for any amount of money in the world? No, I would not.”
Reynolds, wearing a neatly trimmed white beard and a scrub top over his long-sleeved shirt and jeans, quietly cracked jokes as he met with his furry patients and filled out paperwork at the table next to his truck. “Mamas doesn’t smoke, does she?” he asked Degen, who dangled an unlit cigarette from her fingers. “Oh, no!” Degen answered. “She’s spoiled.”
Mamas, rescued from a trash dumpster about a year ago, eats scraps of human food along with the occasional pouch of dog food from from Big Lots. But in recent days the pup’s appetite had been poor. She even shunned treats. “I’m worried,” Degen said.
Reynolds pushed back the dog’s floppy ears and examined her mouth. He saw healthy teeth and a clear throat. He felt her abdomen and detected no masses. Then he reached into a bag of premium kibble, filled a small bowl and put it in front of Mamas. She devoured it. Degen left with a plastic container filled with the food.
“I guess I need to get her the good stuff,” she said, before scuffling away in knit socks that exposed her toes.
As the day progressed, moments of chaos erupted around the veterinarian’s makeshift office, which by noon was brimming with people riding bikes and lounging in the grass. A woman shouted that her bicycle tires were flat. Did anyone have a pump? Disputes surfaced over cigarettes and cellphones. A trio of energetic Chihuahuas, waiting for their turn with Reynolds, yapped at larger dogs.
“It’s never boring,” Reynolds commented.
Patty Cartwright stood alone under a tree a few yards away from the gaggle of dogs, holding a carrier with a large Siamese cat with piercing green eyes.
Siam, who walks on a leash with Cartwright, seemed to have an ear infection, she said. He was shaking his head a lot.
Reynolds got down on a knee, and Cartwright opened the crate. As Cartwright held the cat, the veterinarian shined a light into his ear canal and pressed a stethoscope to his chest. Siam squirmed. “It’s OK, baby,” Cartwright cooed. “It’s OK. I’ll take care of you.”
Siam received a round of vaccinations, a microchip and some drops for his ears. Then Reynolds strode back to his workstation, where seven more clients waited.
As much as he enjoyed working in private practice, he said, his gig with Elica is more rewarding. Company officials said the street veterinary program may be the first one of its kind in the country.
“It’s night and day,” said Reynolds, who originally donated his services but now gets paid by Elica. “My love and passion is to take care of animals. Now, I get to be outside. I don’t have office hours. I don’t have to answer phone calls. The biggest reward out here is to see someone smiling.”
As he bent down to examine Scooter, a brown mixed-breed dog with mournful eyes, Cartwright again appeared at his side.
“I forgot to thank you!” she said, hugging him tightly. “Thank you so much.”
For more information about the Wellness Without Walls and its veterinary program, go to elicahealth.org.