For passion, not for pay: This veterinarian delivers care to beloved pets of the homeless
Dr. Kwane Stewart’s outreach on the streets started more than a decade ago as a personal mission that he kept to himself.
“It was my way to heal,” said Stewart, a veterinarian whose nonprofit, Project Street Vet, provides medical care to the pets of people experiencing homelessness. “Maybe some of it was guilt. Maybe some of it was I just wanted my own little crusade.”
Stewart had spent several years working in a county shelter in Northern California when he thought about quitting in 2011. He’d long dreamed of saving animals but was instead forced to euthanize an increasing number of those that were being surrendered.
“It was the recession. I’m seeing hordes of unwanted pets dropped off, people who don’t have the money to feed them or care for them medically,” Stewart, 53, said. “It started to steal a part of my soul. I thought about leaving the veterinary profession altogether.”
Stewart was at a crossroads, he said, desperately trying to lower the shelter’s rates of euthanasia and increase adoption rates, but also struggling with the sheer number of animals dropped off there. On a whim one morning, he stopped to examine the dog of a homeless man outside a 7-11 where he got his coffee.
“I’d seen this guy before and ignored him. Regrettably, just walked by him,” Stewart said. “And on this day, I just broke pattern because I noticed his dog had some sort of serious skin condition.”
Stewart diagnosed and treated the dog’s condition, and the animal was transformed. But for Stewart, the man’s gratitude was the real wakeup call: “Thank you for not ignoring me” were the words that Stewart says inspired his next chapter.
“That was the moment I said to myself, ‘I’m going to do more of this. I’m going to get back to saving animals on my terms. And I’m going to do it for passion, not for pay.’”
Soon after, Stewart began to do more outreach, setting up small drop-in clinics to provide medical care to pets whose owners couldn’t afford it and walking the streets looking for unhoused individuals whose pets needed help. Right away he was struck by how much the pet owners cared for their beloved animals.
“They’re with each other 24/7 hours a day. Their bond and relationship is on a different level,” Stewart said. “Because they’re not in a traditional home, it doesn’t necessarily make them less of a pet parent. A pet doesn’t care about nice furniture and a big home, they want to spend it with you.”
And he found that many pet owners wanted to share their stories about their dog and their history together.
With their consent, Stewart’s brother, Ian, eventually began documenting some of the work and personal stories to raise awareness about animal welfare and homelessness.
“They probably get criticized more than anything, especially from people in the outside world. But I’ve seen people give up their last meal for their pet and people who have $3 to their name, and after I’m done with the treatment, they will try and give me that $3,” Stewart said.
His brother encouraged him to spread the word and join forces with others to provide street care, and soon more like-minded animal welfare professionals jumped on board.
Genesis Rendon, a registered veterinary nurse who Stewart calls his “right-hand,” had worked in the veterinary field for nearly two decades and was doing her own street outreach when she teamed up with him in 2016. Today, as a lead volunteer for Project Street Vet, she is often by Stewart’s side in homeless camps and on Los Angeles’ Skid Row assisting animals in need.
“Now it’s spreading across the country,” Stewart said. “I’m building a network of trusted volunteers, technicians with hospitals and clinics we can call on. These are all people who just reached out and said, ‘I’m inspired by what you do. How do I do it?’”
Stewart says they can treat about 80% of the cases they see out of a small portable kit. Treatments include antibiotics, vaccines, and anti-inflammatories as well as deworming and flea and tick medications.
“It’s boots on the ground,” Stewart said, adding that their group will also help connect animals in need to clinic services. “And whenever we can, we advocate for or assist people in getting their animals spayed and neutered.”
Stewart’s work with Project Street Vet is all volunteer, and the organization has expanded to other cities, including Orlando and Atlanta.
“It doesn’t matter what your situation is or what your background or past is, I see a pet in need, and I see a person who cares for them dearly who just needs some help. … It’s at no cost to them. It’s free.”
Since he started, Stewart and his volunteer teams have treated thousands of animals while giving their human parents hope and dignity, too.
“I will say this about the people I’ve met who have pets on the streets,” he said. “They are some of the most remarkable pet parents I’ve ever met.”
Want to get involved? Check out the Project Street Vet website and see how to help.
To donate to Project Street Vet via GoFundMe, click here