The man standing outsideÂ the tent on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles clearly doesnâ€™t live in the neighborhood. Tall and fit, heâ€™s dressed in jeans and a doctorâ€™s blue scrub shirt and carries a medical bag. The tent, one of many rough structures on the stained sidewalk, sits amid heaped wooden pallets, old furniture and trash. But the manâ€™s eyes are fixed on the dog lounging nearby.Â
â€œHi, how are you?â€ he says when the tent flap opens. â€œIâ€™m a veterinarian, Dr. Kwane Stewart, and I offer free pet care to people experiencing homelessness.â€ He gestures at the dog. â€œCan I examine your pet?â€Â
First comes confused silenceâ€”youâ€™re who?â€”then suspicion: Is this animal control, here to take my dog? Finally, a slow nod. Stewart, who calls himself the Street Vet, kneels, pulls out his stethoscope and goes to work.Â
These Skid Row streets hold the nationâ€™s largest concentration of homeless people who are not staying in a shelter, and at first glance itâ€™s an unrelieved landscape of despair: mental illness, poverty, addiction. But love exists, too, including the love of pets. Across the nation, 10 to 25 percent of the people who are homeless keep pets, and thereâ€™s no reason to think the number is lower in sunny Los Angeles. Cats sit on sleeping bags, pit bulls, scruffy terriers and mutts trot alongside filled shopping carts, and chihuahuas ride in bicycle baskets and the laps of people who themselves are in wheelchairs. Various local groups and volunteers help the owners of these animals care for them, with weekly and monthly clinics, mobile spay and neuter vans, handouts of flea meds and food.Â
Stewart, 50, has usually worked solo, walking the streets and looking for animals and people in need. â€œMaybe itâ€™s because when I began this work, it wasnâ€™t uncommon to find a pet that had never received care,â€ he says. â€œEveryone I met looked at me as if Iâ€™d just dropped out of the sky.â€
Stewart grew up with dogs, loved them and science, and by the time he was 10 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 with disbelief when Kwane told him. â€œIâ€™ve never met a Black vet,â€ the coach said. Stewart goes on, â€œAt the time I didnâ€™t think much about it. But hereâ€™s the thing: He was Black himself.â€ Decades later the number of African American veterinarians is still so small the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that it might as well be zero.Â
Stewart graduated from the University of New Mexico, got his DVM degree from Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and headed to San Diego. He spent a decade there treating a suburban clientele with â€œbottomless bank accounts.â€ Then, in 2008, he relocated to Modesto, in Californiaâ€™s Central Valley, for a job as the veterinarian for Stanislaus County. And everything changed.Â
The Great Recession flattened Modesto, a city of around 200,000, with plummeting home prices and 17 percent unemployment. And when humans go broke, animals often pay the price. Pet surrenders surged until the areaâ€™s aging shelter, built for 200 animals, held twice as many, and its euthanasia rate became one of the nationâ€™s highest.
â€œI was destroying 30 to 50 animals every morning,â€ Stewart says softly. â€œHealthy dogs and cats. It was killing my soul. I felt like God was keeping score and I was losing. I didnâ€™t go to school all those years to destroy animals. I wanted to help and save them.â€
At first that meant he helped a homeless man he encountered almost daily by treating the manâ€™s dog, which suffered from a bad flea bite allergy. Then he held a free clinic at a local soup kitchen. And then, on his own time, he began to walk around Modesto and some Bay Area sites looking for pets to help. He moved to Los Angeles to serve as chief veterinary officer for the American Humane Association, which makes sure animals are treated well on film sets, and his ramblings shifted to San Diego and Los Angeles. He wore scrubs to identify himself, carried a bag filled with meds, vaccines and syringes, nail trimmers, and he did what he could, free of charge.Â
He was stunned by what he found. Like many people, he questioned why homeless people had animals to begin withâ€”if humans couldnâ€™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 unhoused men and womenâ€”providing structure, purpose, meaning and love. â€œResearchers have consistently found very high levels of attachments to pets among the homeless,â€ Leslie Irvine, a sociologist, writes in her 2012 book about the phenomenon, My Dog Always Eats First.
Stewart agrees. â€œPets were a lifeline to the people I met,â€ he says. â€œMost of them were great pet owners. They did remarkably well with the resources they had, and made sacrifices for them well beyond what you or I would. The bond between them was on a completely different level. They needed each other.â€
For five years, his efforts were a kind of secret hobby that he says even his familyâ€”he has three childrenâ€”didnâ€™t know about. Then, in 2017, he and his brother, Ian, produced â€œThe Street Vetâ€ as a reality TV seriesÂâ€”it has aired on broadcast TV in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe and in the States on a Utah cable channelÂâ€”and Stewart acknowledges heâ€™s now a â€œmedia personality.â€ These days heâ€™s founding a new veterinary practice in San Diego and writing a book about his experiences on the street.
Last September he started a nonprofit, Project StreetVet, raising money on GoFundMe to cover the cost of treating pet medical problems beyond the scope of a sidewalk exam. He has occasionally volunteered with larger organizations assisting people who are homeless. Though he says â€œthere are probably more efficient ways I could spend my time,â€ he likes doing it his way.Â
â€œThe wound is healing well,â€ he reassures a man named Ben, whose pet rat had been attacked by a cat. (â€œIâ€™ve seen birds and snakes, but this was my first rat.â€)
â€œThe puppies look great,â€ he tells Julian, a tattooed man who has lived on the same stretch of pavement for two years and whose dog recently gave birth. (He also vaccinates the pups.)Â
Stewart marvels at the generosity of a young man named Reggie, who lives in a school bus and uses his own cash to make lemonade that he gives away to his neighbors. Stewart vaccinates the manâ€™s dog, Daisy. â€œYouâ€™re doing a good job,â€ Stewart says.
â€œOh, this is such a blessing,â€ the young man replies.Â